You can’t watch the news or read a paper these days without being bombarded with the sexual abuse allegations about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh or the sentencing of Bill Cosby. And that’s just the past few weeks.

I have written several times recently about violence in our schools and communities, and more recently, about suicide. But today I’d like to talk about sexual abuse and its lifelong impact on children.

Sexual abuse is just one of the stressful and traumatic events known in our field as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They include household dysfunction, such as witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. They also include neglect, physical abuse and, of course, sexual abuse.

We know that ACEs lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes, such as fetal death, low birth weight and lifelong sleep disorders. ACEs increase the risk of attempted suicide by two to five times throughout a person’s lifespan. Individuals who reported six or more ACEs have increased odds of attempting suicide by more than 24 times.

Longer-term effects of sexual abuse specifically may be wide-ranging, including anxiety-related, self-destructive behaviors, such as alcoholism or drug abuse, anxiety attacks and insomnia. Victims may show fear and anxiety in response to people who share characteristics of the abuser. They may experience difficulties in adult relationships and adult sexual functioning. They may feel betrayed and unable to trust adults because someone they depended on has caused them great harm or failed to protect them.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report reported these alarming statistics:

But the actual prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported. Experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities.

So, if sexual abuse is so prevalent, why isn’t it reported more frequently or right when it happens? People seem to ask this question every time a high-profile sexual harassment or assault case is reported. And many will attempt to shift the blame onto alleged victims (especially women), asking why they waited.

It is indeed very common for victims to delay disclosing their trauma, if they ever do, and there are many reasons. Here are a couple.

Victims tend to feel shame because as human beings, we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we should have been able to defend ourselves.

Many don’t disclose because they fear they won’t be believed. It is a common belief that women make up these stories for attention or to get back at a man who rejected them. Victims' accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. In high-profile cases, victims are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimization and punished for coming forward.

So, if sexual abuse is so prevalent but the victims often don’t report, where do we start?

Those with a prior history of sexual victimization are extremely likely to be re-victimized. Children who had an experience of rape or attempted rape in their adolescent years were 13.7 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college. Some research estimates an increased risk of over 1000 percent.

So, what can we do?

Moving upstream and adaptation have been the themes for Beech Brook this year and will be for the foreseeable future. And one way we are moving upstream is by providing comprehensive sex education to thousands of children and youth each year.

In line with Beech Brook’s vision of being adaptive, the curriculum has changed over the years to better serve today’s youth. It’s not just about sex. Today, the curriculum is age-appropriate, focusing on topics such as goal-setting, decision-making, self-esteem, puberty and healthy relationships. Girls are learning self-worth and believe that they are valuable without sex. Young men are learning the aspects of a healthy relationships and how to manage peer pressure. In fact, one student was especially proud to report that she now respects her body for the first time in her life. She had been sexually abused as a child and had always felt it was her fault and that she did not deserve to be respected.

Another way that we can move upstream is to help our community understand the dynamics of sexual abuse. We need to help people understand why many victims delay reporting sexual abuse and that this is not a reliable reason to discredit the report. We need to educate others about the prevalence of sexual abuse to help break down the stigma associated with being a victim. This will make it easier for victims to report more frequently and earlier in the future.

By moving upstream, we can have a huge impact on this problem in our community.

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