In the typical "Introduction to Sociology" class taught on college (and some high school) campuses, the distinction among varying types of norms are made. A "norm" is a socially defined belief of how a person should behave; it is a rule or guideline for behavior in one's society. Sociologists talk about norms in the context of a continuum, or degree, of norm violation: folkway, more (pronounced "more-ay") and taboo. The sexual assault of a child would be considered a "taboo".
A taboo is regarded as a strong prohibition of a behavior. In sociology, the term is used to describe something that is reprehensible. Reported today by Michael Sangiacomo of The Plain Dealer, a 29-year old Cleveland man was charged with the rape of an 8-year old girl that he was left to watch. This crime represents a taboo.
Recognizing that the accused perpetrator has only been charged, and not convicted, of the crime of rape, this column will examine the incidence of child sexual abuse and some consequences of victimization. By no stretch of the imagination is this an exhaustive or complete discussion.
David Finkelhor, an eminent scholar on the topic of child sexual abuse, and other researchers have concluded that girls are at greater risk for child sexual abuse than are boys, that children from lower class families are at greater risk for child sexual abuse than are children from higher social classes and children who are sexually abused are more likely to be victims of other forms of violent crime. Researchers have also found that children are most likely to be victimized by either a family member of someone known to the family. That is, they are more likely to be assaulted by an acquaintance rather than a stranger.
According to a fact sheet by Douglas and Finkelhor (2004), one child (specifically, 1.2) of every 1,000 American children are sexually assaulted. However, as any criminologist or sociologist knows, data derived from official statistics, such as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), are fraught with methodological concerns. Only those cases that are reported to law enforcement are included in the UCR and other data collection sources, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) only include information of household members over the age of 12 in its data. Moreover, as the NCVS is conducted by census takers working for the U.S. Bureau of Census, only that information which is provided by the interviewee to the interviewer are included. That is to say, the statistics that are available for analysis and discussion represent an under-reporting of the crime. There is a lot more sexual assault occurring than is being reported.
Much of the available information on the internet reflects data from the 1990s. Looking at the most recent data available, however, it is noted that while child sexual abuse, rape and molestation have declined, the problem of violent crime among society’s vulnerable population continues to be widespread. Information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 9% of the 3.3 million children maltreated in 2010 were sexually abused. In an Executive Summary prepared for Congress entitled “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Sexual Abuse and Neglect(NIS-4)” the authors concluded “The incidence of children with Endangerment Standard sexual abuse decreased from 300,200 in 1993 to 180,500 in 2005–2006 (reflecting a 40% decrease in number and a 47% decline in the rate)”.
In spite of a decline in the incidence, one fact cannot be obscured. That is, the emotional toil and turmoil experienced by a child victim of rape…..
The American Psychological Association describes some of the consequences of child sexual abuse noting that these outcomes vary depending on the child’s age, amount of force used, frequency and duration of abuse, relationship with the abuser and the intrusiveness of the abuse. While some children may show few signs of abuse, at least initially, others may have sleep or eating disturbances, engage in regressive behavior or display behavioral problems at home or at school. Consequences may also include suicidal ideation, self-mutilation and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The American Psychological Association have listed suggestions for the person who believes that a child is being sexually abused (link here). The most important advice is to report one’s suspicion to authority and work to ensure that the child is safe. All 50 states have mandatory report laws for individuals in occupations such as law enforcement, medical personnel, mental health professionals and teachers.
Child sexual abuse/rape/molestation is a taboo for a reason – because of its significant impact on the individual child, their family and society at large.