The following is a guest post from Joelle Casteix, author of The Well-Armored Child: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Sexual Abuse, due out September 15. I’ve written about childhood sexual assault many times on this blog, particularly as it relates to Generation X, so be sure to review the related posts section at this end of this article. It’s a privilege to share this humble space with Joelle and shine a light on a problem that can be so devastating and difficult for families to navigate.
By Joelle Casteix
You can call the police. They may arrest your son and take him to a juvenile detention facility. Once there, you have no idea what will happen. Will he have a record? Will his life be ruined? Will your whole family be placed under the spotlight? Will your son have to become a registered sex offender?
You have second option: you can keep quiet and find a facility that treats sexually offending youth. But the few that do exist are expensive. Can you afford it? If your friends and neighbors find out, will your family be shunned? Will your son’s chances for jobs, higher education, sports, and marriage evaporate? If other parents find out, your daughters’ friends may no longer be able to come to your house. You may even have to move away to escape the stigma.
Then there is the final option: you can make your son promise to never do it again, take no action, and protect your son and his future.
And what about your daughters? Well, they seem okay. You have them in therapy. You’re keeping an eye on them.
So, what do you decide?
Criminal Cover-Ups and Common Mistakes
The Josh Duggar child sex abuse scandal doesn’t seem so cut-and-dry now, does it? Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s potentially criminal cover-up of their son’s crimes was a huge failure on their part—a failure that may have permanently damaged their daughters and put other girls at risk. But their decisions were not unique.
In fact, their decisions are not something that can be attributed to the family’s religious beliefs, political views, or the fact that they are reality TV stars. The choices they made are typical of parents who are faced with child-on-child sexual abuse.
Child-on-child sexual abuse—that is, unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact delivered by implied or real force from one child onto another—is a real problem. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately one-third of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by another child. Many of the perpetrators are victims of abuse themselves. Recent statistics put the number of child offenders who have been abused themselves at 40 to 80 percent.
Sexual abuse is a crime of power.
Had Josh Duggar wanted to experiment in an age-appropriate and healthy way, he would have made the effort to find a willing peer in his age group. Instead, his crimes were about power. Josh had real and implied power over his sisters and preyed on them while they slept.
Since Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, like many other parents of offenders, minimized and downplayed the severity of their son’s conduct, the adverse effects on Josh’s sisters were also downplayed. As in many cases of incest, the any trauma the girls suffered was swept under the rug. Even worse, the girls have to face their abuser every day and pretend like nothing happened.
Tragically, the Duggars are not unique. That needs to change.
How To Prevent Child Sexual Abuse or What To Do If Your Child Is A Victim
So what do we do? How can parents, educators, and caregivers understand healthy sexual and social behavior in children and know when and how to intervene?
- Understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors in children. Children are biological creatures with genitalia and curiosity. As they grow, they will exhibit healthy and age-appropriate sexual behaviors. These behaviors never involve force, threats, or sexual acts. There are many resources on the Internet that outline what healthy sexual behaviors are by age and what behaviors can be considered “red flags.” If your child is the offender, get immediate help for both your child and the victim, even if that requires reporting.
- Take a stand on bullying, even when the bullying is not sexualized. Bullying is abusive, which is why every state has enacted some kind of legislation to protect children in bullying situations. Put a stop to the problem as soon as it starts. If necessary, seek help from your child’s school and law enforcement. They are required by law to help you keep your child safe.
- Take immediate action when there is child-on-child sexual abuse. If you see child-on-child sexual abuse, report it to law enforcement immediately. If you suspect child-on-child sexual abuse, contact law enforcement or ChildHelp, the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child. Trained crisis counselors will guide you through the reporting process. The justice system is kind and compassionate to victims of abuse and is growing in understanding of the dynamics of child offenders.
- Watch for warning signs. Research and understand the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse. Talk to your children about their bodies and respecting body boundaries. Tell your child that no one has the right to touch them if they do not want to be touched. Tell them that no one should ever ask or force them to keep a secret, and that you will always help them and never shame them if they come to you for help.
- Remove the stigma and shame from sexual abuse, and do not minimize the damage caused by child-on-child abuse.
Joelle Casteix is a former journalist, educator and PR professional. She’s has taken her own experience as a victim of child sex crimes and devoted her career to helping prevent child sexual abuse; exposing abuse, advocating on behalf of survivors. Connect with her on Facebook or her blog The Worthy Adversary.
Photography by Jennifer; Photo-worthy Lego creations by my daughter The Super Bridgy.