Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse Echo on for Generations

Child sexual abuse is not the survivor’s problem to resolve. It is our problem, as a society. It’s time to tackle it as a public health problem that costs lives.

Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse Echo on for Generations
One in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.  (Pixabay / Creative Commons)

Always wear a slip.  

You can’t have two buttons open on your blouse. 

 No, I won’t buy that in black for you.

This wasn’t fashion advice; these were rules intended to protect me from a childhood trauma that my mom secretly lived with.

The sexual abuse of children by adults happens every day. And it happens in places where children think they’re safe by people whom they trust and love: at home, frequently by their own parents or other relatives, 95 percent of them male. It’s an ugly truth. 

Beware of strangers, children have long been told. That old story, which handily diverted attention from reality, is being debunked by survivors themselves, their family members and investigative journalists. Being able to tell the truth, be listened to and believed is essential for ending the stigma and shame that child sexual abuse survivors suffer.

It’s rare that someone like Peter Yarrow of “Puff the Magic Dragon” fame is prosecuted for child sexual abuse. But he was not a relative of his victim, and the 14-year-old’s mother believed her. Even so, other prosecutors ignored additional accusations against him, and he won a presidential pardon. Our society has a problem, as the Yarrow pardon reveals. President Biden can do better by directing federal funds to address child sexual abuse.

The recent HBO documentary, Allen v. Farrow, shows how Woody Allen and his team used celebrity, wealth and gender stereotypes to attack his ex’s charge that he sexually abused their daughter, Dylan Farrow—something Farrow herself has written about. Camille Kouchner’s recent memoir, La Familia Grande, recounts how her stepfather, French intellectual Olivier Duhame, sexually abused her brother. Her book has inspired other incest survivor to come out with their stories and a French #MeTooInceste movement. 

As the Kouchner and Farrow reports reveal, sexual abuse by parents has long-term traumatizing effects upon the entire family. The abuse, lies, manipulation and enforced silence deeply hurt the abused, their siblings and other family members long after the physical abuse has ceased. Child sexual abuse has deep and haunting effects, reverberating through family and generations.

That was the case in my family. I learned about a fragment of my mom’s life a day or two after her death. “I have to tell you something,” my aunt said, echoing my mom’s words two weeks earlier. When she was 13, asleep in her bed, my mom told her, she woke to her father masturbating beside her. He visited her room at night more than once while she pretended to be asleep. Once, he touched her breast. Once, he came on her arm. 

An account retold in minutes transformed my understanding of my mom’s life. I now see how these scary, grotesque events haunted her life, confused her and hurt her as an adult.

It haunted how she mothered me.

It showed up in her admonitions that I always wear a slip. Before my college graduation, she reprimanded me: “Don’t sit like that—especially around your father!” I was wearing a beautiful full skirt—the kind you can twirl in—of Indian fabric, pinks and oranges with gold threads running through. It nearly hit my ankles. I was sitting with my legs spread apart, but my knees and legs were completely covered by the skirt; I knew the rules. Yet sitting this way was immediately read as immodest and dangerous. Men were allowed to sit that way, but not women. Doing so also challenged male power—as the term “man-spreading” recognizes.   

I heard my mom’s angry reprimand as insistence on proper manners. But pointing to my father confused me. Yes, he strictly enforced table manners, but this was weird. What did he have to do with it? Her enraged rebuke poisoned the moment, leaving me confused and silenced. 

Only when she died at almost 80 and I learned her story did I understand that moment: She was suddenly hit with panic that I, her daughter, could be endangered by my father, just as she had been by hers. She was frightened, internally traumatized and acted fast to protect me. Her effort at protection—for herself and her daughter—translated into rules about the proper way to sit, walk, dress. As nearly all girls and women are taught, sexual abuse, harassment and assault is their fault.

Her father’s abuse traumatized my mother. In the way that memory and pain is remembered in the body and heart, triggered by sounds, sights and events, it provoked instant reactions in her. The sense of men as sexually threatening wasn’t explicitly taught; in fact, she tried to be pro-sex, talking about the birth control pill, giving my siblings and me sex education books. Still, I absorbed her fear. School sex ed classes, too, inculcated fear, warning us of the dangers of pregnancy, syphilis and drugs. Sex equaled danger.

How did my mom interpret and cope with such behavior by a parent and her own contradictory feelings of violation and love? How does one trust when the person you most trust has proven untrustworthy—at the precise developmental moment when the child’s body is changing, and awareness of desire is developing? Like other survivors, my mom carried those complicated, painful, suppressed feelings with her as she dated, became sexually active, married and had children. In a life otherwise full of creativity and energy, this secret contributed to my mom’s mental breakdown, disassociation and turn to alcohol—all common among sexual abuse survivors

In the last weeks of her life, my mom revealed the abuse to her sister-in-law of 50 years—the family’s truth-teller, whom she knew would tell her children. I think she wanted us to understand her better; to understand reality and perhaps our own lives.  Learning the truth of my mother’s experience reshaped how I understood her. She wasn’t inherently sick: She was abused and traumatized.

One in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. Survivors need to be able to speak, be believed and receive trauma-informed support. 

Yet child sexual abuse is not the survivor’s problem to resolve. It is our problem, as a society. It’s time to tackle it as a public health problem that costs lives. When the pandemic shutdown forced everyone into domestic spaces, rates of child sexual abuse jumped. Funding for child sexual abuse prevention and mental health services should be part of Biden’s jobs and infrastructure bill.

Addressing sexual abuse is as important as building any bridge in America. Sexually abusing children should no longer be part of the secret infrastructure of any family.

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Leslie J. Reagan is a professor of History, Law, and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the author of When Abortion Was a Crime and Dangerous Pregnancies , and a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.