How Harm Comes About

Once a molester touches a child’s “naughty” places, the magical fairy monster comes along to tap them on the forehead and they instantly become devastated for life. Or at least, this is essentially what many abuse advocates believe, and many parents have thus picked up on such nonsense as well. This isn’t a big surprise, considering the mass media promotes such ideas in every discussion or television portrayal of sexual abuse. As a result, exactly how children are harmed by sexual abuse remains somewhat of a mystery to most parents. Everyone seems sure about the devastation, but few could provide an accurate explanation as to why or how this damage comes about, and the subject is surrounded with more mythology than the boogeyman. Yet the principles behind how a child is (or isn’t) harmed are actually very down to earth, and based upon established principles of child abuse and psychological harm.

Let’s start with the ‘isn’t.’ Knowing what isn’t harmful is the first prerequisite to pinpointing what is, and in this regard, a parent’s assumptions tend to be the polar opposite of reality. The biggest misperception about sexual abuse is that it’s the “sexual” aspect of the experience, as opposed to the “abuse” aspects, that’s harmful. Adults generally assume that sexual sensations, or sexual experiences, are scary to kids, and that early sexual experiences are surely destructive to a child’s development. That somehow the very knowledge of and/or exposure to sexuality (a fact of life as basic as food and water) some how steals a child’s “innocence.”

Yet any preschool teacher who has sat in on a classroom while dozens of the kids masturbated themselves to sleep at nap time can see they aren’t engaging in such behavior because such sensations are terrifying to them. They’re doing it because the stimulation of their genitals is pleasurable. Any scientist who explores child development discovers that it’s quite normal for kids to initiate sexual play with each other, it’s normal for them to want to explore the bodies of others or experiment with sexual behavior, and it’s normal for them to display sexualized behavior towards adults. (See references included in our Raising a Sexually Healthy Child area) From a scientific perspective, this indicates not that a child’s development is interrupted by sexual activity, but that in fact, nature intends for children to have sexual experiences early on. As has been noted by numerous researchers, the fact that an active sexual nature still exists in children despite centuries of trying to repress it would imply that it’s an important aspect of child nature. (Constantine & Martinson, 1981) And as we’ll show in a moment, all adults will inadvertently induce sexual responses and/or feelings numerous times throughout a youngster’s childhood. So if sexual experiences are devastating to children, then they’re doomed regardless. None of this bodes well for the theory that children are traumatized or terrified by all things sexual. And in fact, sexual activity, even that involving children, is not inherently harmful unless it contains aggravating factors, such as pain, force, humiliation, etc.

Study (Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, 1998) after study (Constantine, 1981) after study (Kendall-Tackett, Williams & Finkelhor, 1993) after study (Ford & Beach, 1951) after study (Walters, 1974) after study (Ingram, 1979) has shown that children are not inherently harmed by sexual interaction with an adult. (See also Finkelhor, 1981; Gadpaille, 1976; Virkunnen, 1975; Gagnon, 1965; Landis, 1956; Mohr, Turner & Jerry, 1964; Burton, 1968; Gibbens & Prince, 1963; Dahlstram, Welsh & Dahlstrom, 1972; and Tsai, Feldman-Summers & Edgar, 1979, if you need more convincing.) This is often considered sacrilegious to say amongst abuse prevention advocates, but it’s also an undeniable fact, and ignoring it is neither honest nor accurate nor in the best interest of children. (To ignore this evidence is to remain ignorant about how children are harmed, and choosing to ignore how children are harmed means one can’t adequately prevent this harm and may even make things much worse, which shows you just how much these naysayers actually have a child’s interests at heart.) The only one who can deny such a reality is someone who hasn’t explored the research, or someone who is blatantly lying to you. But how can something most parents consider a given be so wrong?

Let’s start with a few indisputable facts about children:

A) Children are naturally curious and seek to explore everything in their world,
B) They are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain,
C) From birth, children are equipped with sexual organs which are fully capable of providing pleasure and even achieving orgasm,
D) They often crave physical affection from adults,
E) This affection is often ambiguous, and the line between what’s considered “sexual” and what isn’t is based on sociological factors, not biological ones,
F) They are born with a sexual nature/identity, and starting even from the preschool years, they even experience sexual desire (parent’s usually refer to this as “crushes”),
G) The primary way in which they learn about the world is through adults.

Amidst these general truths, there isn’t the slightest thing that would imply that interaction with an adult of a sexual nature should be abusive or destructive in and of itself, at least not without adding something else to the equation. To get harm, there needs to be something triggering it, and we must know what that something is. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

The second great myth is that sexuality itself is of a destructive nature, and that when it doesn’t happen in the “right” ways at the “right” time and with the “right” people under the “proper” circumstances, a sexual experience is horrific and will therefore ruin ones very life. A spinoff of this is the belief that a child is somehow “ruined” or scarred by experiencing sexual contact with an adult. Such presumptions are a myth, yet this myth comes with an asterisks: *Indeed, for many people, sexuality is a destructive force in their lives, and it does carry a great deal of abstract significance and added meaning. Some people are saddled with the idea that the wrong type of sexual experience is a horrible thing and unforgivable, and therefore, these beliefs induce very real psychological turmoil. Most of us are burdened with numerous beliefs about how a certain sexual experience might impact our very identity as a person. If you believe that a child’s “innocence” (however this vague word may be defined) is whisked away should they be molested, or that a person becomes damaged goods after such an event, or that God thinks sexual expression of the wrong kind is a horrible sin or that sexual “purity” (however this is defined) is a matter as important as life and death, then certainly, such beliefs can have a very real impact on psychological health and add harm to an otherwise benign experience.

Yet these ideals are not a natural byproduct of sexuality itself, but are bred into existence by cultural pressures, with parents often playing a primary role in the creation of such beliefs. While we can’t ignore the role that culture, religious beliefs, and personal family ideals play in a child’s life, we also must understand that these cultural pressures and ideas about sexual shame are not set in stone, nor are they universal among families. More importantly, we must acknowledge that it is not sexuality per se, but negative beliefs in regards to sexuality, that creates this potential for harm, and that parents and communities have a choice about trying to avoid such negative beliefs. In cultures where these destructive beliefs don’t exist, NEITHER DOES THE POTENTIAL FOR HARM, and children who are reared in sexually accepting societies are taught/guided in sex by adults just as they would be taught about any other life skill, manage to grow up happy and well-adjusted, all without any problems. (Ford & Beach, 1951; Currier, 1981; Elwin, 1968) Even in this society, children, having had less time to internalize these learned beliefs, are therefore the least likely to be swayed by them, (until they get older), and if parents choose to promote healthy attitudes about sexual expression, then a sexual experience holds no more destructive potential than anything else in life.

It is these ideas, and not physical actions per se, that play a prominent role in the harm that might come about, and much of what adults believe to be true about the inherent harmfulness of such an experience is simply an illusion. For example, let’s take the idea that experiencing sexual sensations with an adult is harmful to a child and might distort their development and cause them harm. If this were true, we’re all doomed, because every child on the face of the earth will experience sexual experiences with adults long before they hit puberty, whether intended or not. Throughout their childhood, a youngster will experience numerous instances where inadvertent contact triggers a sexual response. (Constantine 4 ~& Martinson, 1981; Freud, 1990; Langfeldt, 1981) Wrestling with dad, sitting on a knee, piggy back rides, hugging, kissing, bathing, swimming, being carried, having someone help them change; there are numerous circumstances involving numerous people in which children will experience sexual feelings and stimulation. How we define such an experience, and the meaning we ascribe it, is based on sociological distinctions, not physical attributes. Nature knows no difference between a child experiencing sexual stimulation because she sat on Uncles knee and wiggled around versus one whose uncle fondled her in bed. Either way, the result is the same: all children will have sexual experiences with adults during childhood, be it by design or by accident. Obviously, sexual experiences don’t harm a child…there must be other factors involved contributing to harm.

Let’s examine a couple more quick examples before moving on. Let’s pretend that someone were to take your daughter to their house and have her take off her clothes and pose while they took naked pictures of her. Judging by parental reactions to such a thought, one would be forgiven for thinking that such an event is the most horrific thing a child could endure aside from death. And while someone doing this behind a parent’s back is by all means ethically wrong. The basis for harm from such an incident exists only within destructive beliefs. The proof of this can be seen by looking to other situations as a comparison.

Children in nudist cultures have their pictures taken in the nude all the time. These pictures are proudly displayed and often shared with family and friends. They are filmed and photographed doing activities of all sorts from swimming to sunbathing to playing outside with friends. Such pictures and videos may even be included in promotional materials for the nudism lifestyle. This means that their naked exploits will be bought and sold and shared all around the world. So don’t children end up horribly scarred from this? Not in the least. In fact, research shows that children living such a lifestyle tend to grow up happier and psycholog ically healthier than children who don’t have such experiences. The reason: the messages within their environment teach them not to be ashamed of their bodies. Thus they don’t develop the same shame and embarrassment over sexual matters or nudity that other kids do. (Smith & Sparks. 1986)

A nude picture is no more embarrassing or upsetting than a family portrait would be to another child. The circumstances that occurred in the example mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph certainly give parents justifiable reason for concern (since it occurs in secrecy and stokes our fears about what else might be going on). But the experience itself is nothing to fret over. We should try to raise our children so that they could disrobe in front of others or have their pictures taken in the nude without any embarrassment (under safe circumstances of course) since this would indicate a child who is free from body shame and not embarrassed about the natural aspects of who they are.

Nudist societies provide another example that can be used as a comparison for sexual abuse. Children in nudist lifestyles interact with adults in the same way as kids do everywhere else in the world: they cuddle. sit on laps. wrestle. get carried. play around. and share affection. During such activities, their naked bodies come into contact with the naked bodies of adults. Small children may press their face against an adults genitals when they give them a hug or lay on their lap. When a little girl sits on a man’s lap, her body and possibly even her genitals will come into contact with his penis. As children wrestle around and play with adults. their bodies would touch allover. Children are bound to feel or otherwise have contact with male erections, both from other kids and adults. Once again, not only does such contact do them no harm. but it’s a primary reason why they tend to grow up better adjusted than the rest of us: they grow up without shame and stigmatization attached to sexual identity. Such depictions may make readers uncomfortably or even sound a bit perverted. but these feelings are derived only because we grew up being taught negative messages about our physical attributes and sexuality in general. Also consider this: what we just discussed is nothing more than normal human interaction in its purest form. the way nature intended it.

If the popular beliefs about the horrors of child molestation were true, kids would be traumatized by diaper changes. since this also involves an adult touching and even rubbing a child’s genitals. If conventional wisdom were correct. daughters might be converted to lesbianism by breastfeeding or when their mothers kissed them on the lips. If the presumptions you hear about sexual abuse throughout the media are true, doctor’s visits should also leave life-long scars. And if experiencing sexual feelings between an adult and child causes harm, then we’ve all molested our children countless times without even realizing it. The idea that a child automatically suffers irreparable harm (or any harm at all) from a sexual experience with an adult is as absurd as believing they should be traumatized by diaper changes. Hopefully, this discussion has gotten you thinking about this problem in new terms. Now we can build upon this knowledge that sexual experiences aren’t harmful to kids in and of themselves, to better learn what truly is.

The Basis for Harm

Now let’s introduce a second set of truths:
A) Children may be sexual beings, but they do differ from adults in key ways. Namely, prior to puberty their sexual drive is not nearly as strong, and its aim is different, directed towards physical affection, intimacy, and mutually pleasurable interaction (think in terms of “sexual affection” as opposed to “sex”),
B) Obvious anatomy differences preclude them from the adult sexual aim of copulation, which in young children is likely to cause severe pain,
C) Sexual gratification is a strong instinctual impulse among adults, which means that when directed towards a child, an adults interests may not always align with those of the child, which creates cause for concern. There are certainly those out there who would consider their own interests without regard for the child’s, and some who might even resort to force or violence to satisfy their desires. This gap between adult interests and child capacity creates the potential for abuse.
D) A child’s dependence upon adults makes them vulnerable to being taken advantage of, and their inability to physically stand up to an adult can render them helpless against someone who forcefully disregards their wishes. Obviously, children need protection against unwanted contact of any kind.

All of life is a balancing act, and this subject is no exception. Whether or not a child is harmed from sexual interaction with an adult (or another child) depends on the unique elements of the experience. As such, researchers have concluded that there is “no inbuilt or inevitable outcome of set of emotional reactions” associated with childhood sexual abuse. (Constantine, 1981, p. 238; Walters, 1974) Even a somewhat slanted study by authors working for the Crimes Against Children Research Institute agree, finding that there is no single, identifiable syndrome from sexual abuse, and that responses are quite varied and generally mild. (Kendall-Tackett, Williams & Finkelhor, 1993) The reason for this is simple: there’s no identifiable syndrome because each circumstance occurs in so many unique ways, and IT IS THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, NOT THE SEXUAL BEHAVIOR, WHICH DETERMINES HARM. So, let’s find out about these harmful elements:

Force / Violence / Aggression

Children may be sexual beings and they may have the capacity to find sexual experiences pleasurable, but that hardly means their interests are always aligned with an adults. When a child is reluctant or unwilling for whatever reason, some individuals may resort to force in order to satisfy their own desires. Direct physical force is seldom used, (most molestations take place with a child’s cooperation), but it happens often enough to warrant consideration and concern. Ironically, physical force or aggression is most often utilized at the hands of those who aren’t actually true pedophiles. These are the drunk step-dads who come home and rape a child at night not because their sexual orientation is to children, but because little Sally happens to be there and makes a convenient alternate outlet who can be overpowered to satisfy his sexual drive; whereas pedophilia usually arises in those who have a strong social connection to kids, and thus, aren’t likely to use force. (Though there are certainly exceptions; pedophiles, like any group of society, come in all shapes and forms.) Force is also the most common in cases of inter-family abuse.

It’s important to note that aggression isn’t just physical. Verbal aggression or hostility can be every bit as hurtful as physical aggression. This can take the form of threats or hostile statements, such as “If you don’t do this I’m going to chop off your arms one by one.” Force can also be implied, even if not actually used, and results in much the same effect. For instance, showing a child a gun or knife and implying that non-compliance will be met with the use of that weapon.

However it may occur, when force, violence, or aggression is involved, it impacts children in a couple of ways. First, exposure to violence or aggression is potentially harmful in and of itself. It’s scary, it causes social pain and distress, and it often causes physical pain, and is just a generally destructive thing for children to be around. Violence and aggression is so toxic to kids that merely being surrounded by it (as is the case in domestic conflict or domestic violence) is often just as destructive to kids as abusing them directly. (Perry, 1997; McEwen & Schmeck, 1994)

Second, when force or violence is utilized, a child experiences a profound loss of control. Few people understand just how important control and personal autonomy are for psychological health, but when it’s lost, it can be devastating. A loss of control is essentially what gives rape almost all of its destructive power. When a sense of control is lost, feelings of helplessness and despair set it. It also causes a significant social injury, as being rendered helpless by another human being who is hurting you turns the dial for social pain as high as it can go. Children tend to do better in this regard than adults, since they are used to ceding control to adults to begin with, yet it still affects them.