Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse

The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence published a list of eight common myths about child sexual abuse. Most people have beliefs about sexual abuse that are common misconceptions and popular myths, rather than results of scientific research. Society has accepted these myths, and this allows sex offenders to silence victims. It also encourages public denial of the extent and nature of child sexual abuse.

Myth 1: Normal-appearing, well educated, middle-class people don't molest children. The public assumes that private behavior matches public behavior, and that someone who appears and acts normal could not possibly be a child molester. Sex offenders rely on these misassumptions to gain access to children. The typical offender looks like someone of good character, incapable of perpetrating sexual abuse. Many offenders have responsible positions working with children and have a pattern of responsible and caring public behavior. They are charming and likeable, and appear sincere and truthful. Parents and other adults drop their guards and allow offenders to access child victims. Sometimes the public life of a child molester is "exemplary" and they look better than most. They are employed, never abuse alcohol or drugs, attend and are active in church, coach Little League, and volunteer in community functions.
Myth 2: People are too quick to believe an abuser is guilty, even if there is no supporting evidence. The truth is that people are too quick to believe that the person accused is innocent - even if there is no supporting evidence. Normal people often distort reality and minimize negative things they see, creating an illusion of a kinder and gentler world than is the reality. Most people also assign responsibility to the victims, believing that they did something to cause the abuse. It is hard for normal people to imagine and accept the fact that a person chooses to sexually abuse a child. Because they think that sex abusers must be "monsters," they are looking for a monster, and they don't find one because sex offenders look just like them - normal. They then refuse to believe the allegation of sexual abuse because the accused person is "incapable" of such an act.  

Myth 3: Child molesters molest indiscriminately. Sex offenders carefully select their victims and set them up for abuse. They groom their victims, skillfully manipulating children into participating in the abuse. To ensure continued compliance, abusers use bribes, threats, and force. When the offender is not a member of the immediate family, he will obtain the child's friendship and also obtain the family's friendship and trust. The child then becomes more vulnerable.  

Myth 4: Children who are being abused would immediately tell their parents.
The fact that victims do not disclose their abuse is often used as evidence that the allegation is false. However, children who have been sexually abused have significant difficulty revealing or discussing their abuse. Only 3% of all child sexual abuse and 12% of all child rapes are reported to the police. Twenty-eight percent of adult sexual abuse survivors say that they never told anyone about being raped during childhood. Of those who did tell, 47% did not talk about it until five years after the rape occurred. Actually, the children who experienced the most severe sexual abuse, who were young, had a family relationship with the perpetrator, and experienced a series of rapes, were more likely to delay disclosure. Sex offenders convince victims that they are responsible for the abuse. Children then feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, and blame themselves,. They fear retribution and abandonment. These silence children, preventing their disclosure of sexual abuse. Boys have a more difficult time reporting than girls. The more severe the abuse, the more likely that boy victims blame themselves, and the less likely that they will disclose. In addition to blaming themselves, the social stigma of victimization and fears of being labeled homosexual increase the reluctance of boy victims to tell about the abuse.       

Myth 5: Children who are abused will show evidence of abuse. Lack of evidence contributes to the belief that the alleged perpetrator is innocent. However, research shows that abnormal genital findings are rare, even in those cases where abuse has been proven. Acts like fondling and oral sex leave no physical trace. Injuries sustained during penetration heal quickly for young children. The child must be examined within 48 hours of the abuse if abnormal genital findings are to be found. In cases of penetration, up to 95% of the genital findings are normal. In a study of 236 children in cases where perpetrators were convicted for sexual abuse, genital findings were abnormal in only 14% of cases and suspicious in an additional 9%. In a larger study of 2384 children referred for medical evaluation following disclosure, only 4% showed abnormal genital findings. Even with a history of severe abuse, with vaginal and anal penetration, the rate of abnormal medical findings was only 5.5%.

Myth 6:Hundreds of innocent men and women have been falsely accused and sent to prison for molesting children. The media suggests that America is experiencing a hysterical overreaction to the perceived threat of pedophiles. Research, however, shows that our society under-reacts and under-estimates the scope of the problem. Police and prosecutors have been accused in the past of conducting witchhunts, but there is no evidence that innocent people have been targeted. Research consistently shows that few abusers are ever investigated or charged! Research has shown that criminal action is taken in approximately 24% of substantiated cases of sexual abuse. Offenders are convicted in only 1-2% of cases, and most spend less than one year in jail. Child abusers are rarely identified and rarely prosecuted.   

Myth 7: If asked about abuse, children tend to exaggerate and are prone to making false accusations. Research shows that children often minimize and deny sexual abuse rather than embellishing accounts of the abuse. In one study where 28 children tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, the children presented with physical complaint and no prior disclosure of sexual abuse. When children were interviewed by a social worker, only 12 confirmed sexual abuse. In a study in which the perpetrator plead guilty, and detailed video recordings of the abuse were available, victim interviews were compared to the recordings. Some children did not disclose, others had difficulty remembering, and one child did not have the conceptual language to describe the abuse. No child embellished the account or accused the perpetrator of acts not done. Some people believe that a child recanting means that the child had previously lied about the abuse. This is not true. Recanting is denial after the disclosure. Family members often have exerted pressure on the child to get them to recant. In a study of children who recanted in substantiated cases of sexual abuse, 23.1% of child victims recanted. There was no evidence that recantation occurred because the original allegation was false. Instead, it was shown that the victims more likely to recant were younger, had been abused by a caregiver, and had insufficient support from the non-offending caregiver  

Myth 8: By using repeated interviews, therapists or police can easily implant false memories and cause false allegations among children of any age. Although research consistently shows that children rarely make up abuse accounts, fear of false allegations continues to be a significant concern. Particularly when prominent individuals are accused of sexual abuse, the child is accused of inventing the story, and allegations are made regarding improper questioning. Another area of concern has been that therapists shape or implant false memories. However, research shows that these concerns are exaggerated. A substantial body of research has found that children are very reluctant to discuss embarrassing events, and it is very difficult to implant any statement about a child's genitals. Children are more likely to fail to report than to falsely remember. Many child victims exhibit post-traumatic symptoms. No laboratory or clinical research supports the myth that children falsely remember details of sexual abuse.      

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