Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sexual Abuse: A Rule of Thumb

“I suspected something was going on for years. I asked her. She said I was crazy. I asked him. He said the thought was outlandish. I began to feel as if I were insane. I read very magazine article I could find—you know, in Red Book and Ladies Home Journal and stuff like that. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.”

That conversation took place about thirty years ago. We were sitting in my office in the county south of Louisville. The woman, her husband, and her daughter had already been interviewed by the social worker to whom I had assigned the investigation and the investigator for the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. At this stage of the investigation I had no doubt in my mind that the girl had been sexually abused by her stepfather. But her mother still had doubts and that is why se asked to speak with me.

Back then—thirty or so years ago—it was difficult for most people to believe that sexual abuse—incest in this case—took place. Perhaps the taboo was too powerful in their minds—or maybe they built up a strong sense of denial. Whatever it was, people had difficulty believing a parent or a stepparent could have sex with a child. And that was true even for the non-abusing parents, such as they woman sitting in my office. She had seen the indications of incest—the warning signs she had read about in the various magazines. However, it was a grim thought that she did not want to accept. And when both her husband and daughter told her that her suspicions were crazy and outlandish, she was relieved.

What broke the case open and led to our receiving a report of the possible sexual abuse was the girl herself. Later, in a seminar, I learned that there are stages in which the victimized child goes through in rationalizing the abuse and the roles of the abusing and non-abusing parents. It has been a long time since that seminar, but—to the best of my recollection—the stages were something like this in the situation of father (or stepfather) incest with a daughter:

1. He is doing this to me and I don’t like it and she won’t protect

2. He is doing this to me and I don’t like it and she doesn’t

3. He is doing this to me and I like it and I’m better than
she is.

4. We are doing this and we don’t need her.

In this specific case the victimized child was probably in the second stage. He stepfather had been giving her all sorts of gifts, including a pony to ride, to buy her silence. He had also been doing his best to isolate her from her peers and friends, even to the point of moving to a new county and forcing her to change schools.

From the standpoint of the girl, she liked the gifts and special treatment she received from her stepfather. However, she also began to wonder about their sexual relationship. In junior high school, when other girls were giggling and whispering about “boys” and kissing and petting, she found herself left out. She realized that none of the other girls talked about have sexual intercourse, much less having sex with their father. So she was silent during these “girl talk” sessions and eventually began to avoid them.

By the time she reached the tenth grade, she began having romantic interests and fantasies about boys her own age. He stepfather recognized this change in her and that jealousy of boys her own age—and probably the fear of discovery—is what led him to move the family to another county. It was not long after than move that the girl informed a school mate about the incest. The school mate informed her parents, who were savvy enough to make a child abuse report to us.

The girl’s mother was shocked by our investigation and by the removal of the girl from her home. That is what led her to speak to me. She did not want to believe it, even though she had herself observed the warning signs and confronted her daughter and husband. By this stage of the investigation, the child had already provided details of the abuse to my investigating social worker and law informants officials. So asked her mother: “Who do you believe? Do you believe your own instincts and your daughter’s statement? Or do your believe your husband’s denial?”

And replied, “I really want to believe that nothing happened. I want to believe my husband. But you know, now I can’t.”

In the comments made to yesterday’s post, Bruisedegosmashedsunnysideup wrote: “Survivors of abuse who survived a particular time when reports weren't taken seriously are truly amazing, especially when they go on to lead fulfilling lives despite their past.” I agree, because I was investigating sexual abuse during that time. And, I fear that, even today, with so much more documentation and data regarding sexual abuse in all of its forms, many people continue to deny its existence.

Back then I developed a rule of thumb: Believe the victim until she/he is disproved. I think it was a good rule thirty-some years ago and remain a good rule of thumb today.


  1. Nick, you state "Sexual abuse in all it's forms" this is so right. Sexual abuse doesn't just have to be "the act". As you know, 90% of my clients are children that have been sexually abused but not all the charges are those of rape. The majority are indecent dealing, using a child for immoral purposes etc.
    Also, i concur re "the stepfather", not all step fathers are bad people, infact the majority are not. However 75% of the defendants in my cases are all step fathers. The other 25% are fathers,uncles and boyfriends. I have not ever had 1 case where a child has been sexually abused by a person unknown to them.

  2. Hi Nick ~~ A great post about sexual
    abuse. I also read your links, thank
    you for posting them. It is so sad
    and alarming the number and variety
    of abuse. You must have been a great counsellor, and I hope you soon are
    again. I knew you were kind when you
    felt for Zaidee and even my Teddy.
    Thanks Nick. Cheers, Merle.

  3. Nick - this post really hits home. I babysat for neighbors, and became very very close to the children. They were over at the house one day, when the oldest said something offhand to my mom. My mom related the story to me later that evening, and said she thought something was happening. I dismissed it completely. I did not want to believe it, because they seemed to be such a perfect family, and had wonderful repor with each other. Within a year, they had moved to another state. A few years later, while I was working at a law office, I came across their Juvenile file. What I read in there horrified me. His girlfriend felt the same way as my mother did, only SHE did something about it. She finally put an end to a cycle of abuse that started when the girls were babies. It was sick and disgusting, and it made my heart break.

    I often think back to those days when I was around them, and I see the warning signs now. And I keep a lookout for them everywhere. I feel guilt because I didn't want to believe it could be happening right under my nose, but I know better now.

  4. wow, this is such a complicated issue, fraught with the possibility of tragic mistakes and overlooks. Glad that there were and are people like you who are willing to pursue what needs to be pursued.

  5. The problem with your "rule of thumb" is that it's almost impossible to prove a negative.

    There's been a real problem locally with teenage girls falsely accusing their male school teachers of abuse just out of spite. Even though the cases are almost always dropped, the teacher is slimed and often leaves the profession.

    I briefly considered teaching as a career, and was advised that, as a male, I should take great care to never be alone with a student, never touch a student (not even on the shoulder), and to take out additional insurance. I decided it wasn't worth the risk. If a child says I touched him/her, how could I ever prove that I didn't?

  6. Michelle—Yes, I agree. “Indecent dealing” possibly parallels our category of “sexual exploitation?” That is a rough area.

    The stepfather thing can also be difficult. I think there are few true fathers, natural or “step,” who would sexually use a child. However, when they do they often come up with some sort of crazy rationalization that they are not breaking the incest taboo and therefore it is OK. I have encountered a defense attorney who used that argument in court.

    Merle—You are welcome. I’m glad you read the links. I shall be posting more links regarding the signals of sexual abuse and the treatment of victims and perpetrators before April is over.

    Callie—I know what you are saying. First, it is hard to believe that something as antisocial as sexual abuse is taking place. Second, it is usually a dark “family secret” and no one speaks of it. Third, deciding to report a suspicion to authorities is never easy and the nature of sexual abuse makes it even more difficult. I think people ask themselves, “what if I am wrong?”

    Jay Are—Yes, it is a complicated issue, for all of the reasons I gave Callie and more. In deciding on treating a family in which children have been sexually abused in one of its many forms, we always had quite a bit to consider. For example, how does one deal with the voyeur father who drilled spy holes in the bathroom wall so he could look at his daughters and their friends while he masturbated? We had that case. The father was severely addicted and sealed and re-drilled those holes three times while we were working with the family.

    Thomas—Since the “enlightenment” regarding sexual crimes that society has achieved with the advent of feminism, we may have overly reacted in the protection of potential victims. However, there have been thousands of years during which females especially were victims of sexual abuse and misconduct while society closed its eyes to what was happening and its ears to the cries of the victims.

    I suspect that the number of false claims of sexual abuse is much fewer than the actual cases of it. Even when an allegation is made, if the investigator is knowledgeable and competent, than the truth is easily recognized. For example, it is always very difficult for a victim to make a report and tell their story. And, usually the victim evinces elements of shame and self-reproach when describing the events. Many times the victim even attempts to protect the perpetrator by accepting responsibility for what was done to her/him. When someone makes a false allegation in order to wound someone, those elements are usually not present. An adept investigator will recognize that as a red flag.

    The advice about not being alone with or touching a student is unfortunate, but valid. It is valid because folks—adults as well as children—interpret words and actions differently. It is unfortunate because some of the most vulnerable and emotionally needy folks do need the care of human touch—well all need a bunch of hugs each day! As a therapist and a pastor, I never touch or hug anyone without first asking their permission. And when I do, it is always good to have a third party present—just in case.

  7. Quote "Back then—thirty or so years ago—it was difficult for most people to believe that sexual abuse—incest in this case—took place .."

    Back then sexual abuse wasn't talked about. People knew it happened and believed it but social conditioning namely fear, over generations taught otherwise.

    I'm a third generation sexual abuse survivor. Twenty-two years ago, I took my step father to court for sexually abusing me from the age of nine. Back then the judge in his summary to the perpetrator stated that "This is not something that I've come across before and because the issue is so new, and you have no prior convictions, you will be required to do community service and undergo counselling with a trained psychologist." Back then there were no 'trained psychologists' so he got off with a smack on the hand and a "don't do it again'.

    Your article is a good general article that explains why you have a rule of thumb about being able to identify sexual abuse. Perhaps the title should reflect that because you are explaining to people who you've come to your determinations based on your experience.

    I must also make a comment to Thomas. Your reason for not going into teaching is not valid. Sure the issue you raised is a valid one but using that to justify your career choice isn't. Not to me. I know many teachers who have said the same thing, but their passion for teaching and their own sense of boundaries didn't stop them from following their career path.

    Frankly, we can't let 'possible' cases of sexual abuse prevent us from doing what we want to do. It comes back to your own sense of values and beliefs. Society at present forces us to re-evaluate our interaction with others, but in the end, it's up to you as to what you think and what you do.

  8. Kylee—Yes, it is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most scary I could tell.

    Rae—You are so right. Sexual abuse, and especially incest, has been called “the silent crime” because it was often a “family” secret. That you are the third generation who has experienced sexually maltreatment rather substantiates that. I am glad you had the courage to break the silence and have your stepfather prosecuted. I am sorry for the ignorance of the judge.
    I have a personal story about the courage it takes to prosecute an incestuous and abusing father. I shall post it this week.
    Thank you for sharing your story and your comments.

  9. Nick - Thank you for this story! I am a male survivor of incest at the hands of my mother, beginning more than two decades ago. So much of the vicious cycle of abuse begins inside the family, but our society has always wanted to deny the necessary conversations to bring these issues into the light. The implications for our society are enormous too -- victims of abuse and incest are far more likely to be addicts, commit crimes and be abusers themselves. I spent my teen and college years in a total rage and a fog of addiction, mental illness and unhealthy relationships. It took a real intervention for me to come to terms with my abuse and my own lingering issues resulting from that abuse. Today I am a healthy, happy father, husband and Christian. I am a lucky one. I didn't get any intervention until I was 21, but it happened. Many victims never get help and never feel hope. My blog is all about these issues -- I'm trying to drive a robust dialogue there about how to address the issue of childhood abuse in a holistic, integrated and constructive way. Politicians give it tough talk, but we really need to dedicate ourselves to increasing funding and implementing REAL solutions. Thanks again for sharing this story. There is no more important issue in the world right now.

  10. Cyclebreaker—Thank you for your comments and the insi8ghts you have provided. During my years as a therapist, I have only worked with three male survivors of incest. I agree about the price society pays, as well as the victims, because of incest. Unfortunately, most of the statistics I’ve encountered relate to females. Thus I am glad you are giving your voice to the issue.