Child sexual abuse is an unfortunate reality for at least one out of every five children. Despite the very real danger, many parents find the idea of their child as a victim of sexual abuse too difficult to think about. We’ve already discussed some prevailing myths regarding the kinds of people who abuse children or the short-and long-term effects of abuse.
However, there’s a different set of myths that are just as comforting to parents who have learned their child was molested. And to believe them is just as dangerous as not preparing for prevention in the first place.
If you are going to help yourself, or your child recover from sexual abuse, read below to learn the truth about three common myths that lend false comfort to parents of molestation victims.
1. My child was too young to remember. They’ll forget the whole thing and the effects will be minimal.
A common myth about childhood sexual abuse is that the child rarely remembers his or her abusive experience. Because of the changes happening to a child’s mind and body, so the myth goes, any trace of sexual abuse will be forgotten.
It’s true that memories are fallible. Some memories can even be fabricated. But the majority of childhood trauma researchers and clinicians agree that sexually abused children remember parts, if not all of their experience of abuse. Media coverage and reporting of “false memories” is such a popular topic that people may believe that “total amnesia” of the event is the norm for most victims of childhood sexual abuse. This is simply not true.
What’s more, many clinicians believe that children process and remember trauma differently than adults. The child may dissociate the memory—their memory is not lost but is buried in their minds and not easily retrievable. The child may not understand what their memory means or even share their memory, but the effects of their experience, whether they can retrieve it from memory like a snapshot or not, linger on.
While it’s still unknown exactly how children process and remember trauma, the myth that trauma is somehow magically “erased” from the child’s mind is false. So is the myth that because memory is imperfect, every report of sexual abuse in children is without merit.
2. There was no penetration, so there should be no damage.
The act of penetration is not the deciding factor for whether or not a child has to cope with trauma. Any sexual act performed with a child has consequences for their emotional, physical, and psychological well-being.
This myth persists because many people don’t understand the range of behaviors that the term “sexual abuse” covers. Child sexual abuse is any behavior that gives sexual gratification to the perpetrator. At the extreme is sexual intercourse, including penetration. But other touching and non-touching behaviors are also abusive, including:
- Fondling and any unwanted touching
- Indecent exposure
- Inappropriate conversations
- Exposing children to pornographic material
- Forcing children to touch another person sexually
- Forcing children to pose sexually for photos or video
All this being said, penetration has been linked with specific outcomes separate from other abuse. Research has shown that in cases involving penetration, there is a greater link between the child developing “psychotic and schizophrenic syndromes” more than victims who were not penetrated. A New Zealand study of 1,200 people over 25 years showed that children who experienced “attempted or completed penetration” were 2.4 times more likely to experience mental health disorders, including suicidality.
In short, child sexual abuse is not defined by one sexual act, and the consequences of sexual abuse are far-reaching. Here’s an abbreviated list of conditions and disorders victims of child abuse may have to cope with, regardless of whether or not penetration happened:
Traumatic symptoms, depression, substance abuse, suicidality, helplessness, conduct problems, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders, sexual risk-taking, and trouble forming meaningful, long-term relationships.
3. It only happened once, so the damage should be minimal.
This myth is particularly bad. Saying that being sexually abused once is somehow lesser than being abused continually puts the act itself on a scale. Abuse is not a value judgment. Abuse is abuse. A single experience of sexual abuse can have both temporary and lasting impact on a child’s life.
In the short-term, a child exposed to a single sexually abusive incident (a phone call, an unwanted touch), can endure emotional distress.
4. A child can become disoriented, confused, anxious, or defensive and fearful around adults.
If the sexual act is more extreme, (incest, rape, sexual violence), the same effects and risk factors mentioned earlier can develop—emotional trauma, physical symptoms, and even PTSD.
Of the myths on this list, this last one has the most damaging power. It tries to make a single event somehow less reprehensible or damaging than a string of abuse. The truth is a single event is still a history of abuse.
It may be understandable to want to think this way. You may be coming to terms with your own experience, or an event that happened to someone you care about. This myth is a way to deflect the reality and severity of the situation. But ignoring the facts only stalls real intervention and help for sexually abused children.
Are you surprised that these are myths?
If you believed any of these before reading the article, how do you feel finding out the truth? Please let us know in the comments how childhood sexual abuse myths have affected you. And remember that, even though the facts are uncomfortable, they are your best tool for self-compassion, understanding, and living as a survivor of sexual abuse.