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We must confront child sexual abuse

Nearly 13% of Utahns report being molested before the age of 18, with more than one-third of those occurring before the age of 10

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A mother and father lift their child up by the hands while walking up a hill.

Most families strive to make life happy for children. However, adverse childhood experiences, including sexual abuse, can impact a person for the rest of his or her life.

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Research shows there is a significant relationship between what are called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs) and the health and well-being of adults. In fact, traumatic events that occur during one’s childhood will impact that person in some way the rest of his or her life.

According tothe CDC,ACEs can include things like:

  • Experiencing violence, abuse or neglect.
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community.
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide.
  • Substance use problems in the household.
  • Mental health problems in the household.
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.

One of these that is of particular concern to me right now (although all are concerns) is child sexual abuse. The Utah Women & Leadership Project just published some “Child Sexual Abuse Statistics” that we gathered specifically on this topic, and the results are sobering.

First, let’s try to understand how large the pool of adults is that have suffered from sexual abuse here in Utah. Nearly 13% of Utahns report being molested before the age of 18, with more than one-third of those occurring before the age of 10. Sadly, the bulk of the abuse on children is perpetrated by a family member; for adolescents the perpetrator is most likely a peer.

The negative effects of being sexually abused as a child can be far-reaching and long-lasting. High school dropout rates may increase as much as 40% for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which has economic repercussions.

Child sexual abuse and adolescent sexual assault are associated with increased rates of alcohol and substance abuse. In one large study, 1 in 5 of survivors developed alcohol dependence by age 30. This same study also found 1 in 5 of survivors developed illicit substance dependence by age 30.

There are serious mental health consequences too. Sexually abused youth are 5 times more likely than the general population to be hospitalized for a mental or physical health problem. And sexually abused youth are 1.6 times more likely than the general population to use outpatient treatment for a mental or physical health problem. They are 4 times more likely to experience PTSD as adults, and 3 times more likely to experience a major depressive episode as adults.

And tragically, children who experience sexual abuse are at least 3 times more likely to attempt suicide later in life, and as they get older, the risk of suicide attempts increases.

Several studies have shown a link between abuse and weight, with one study finding 42% of abused females were classified as obese by young adulthood, compared to 28% of the control group. The effects of childhood sexual abuse can manifest in any almost any area of our lives and have ripple effects throughout society.

As the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” What then, can we do to reduce the risk of childhood sexual abuse? The Younique Foundation has created a wonderful resource, Defend Innocence, that outlines ways parents can enhance protection. The “Proactive Parenting” section provides educational resources on technology, signs of grooming, bullying, and sex offender registries.

The section on “Raising Capable Kids” focuses on boundaries, confidence and consent. And “Sexual Development at All Ages” is a wonderful resource for knowing how to handle “the big talks, little talks and everything in between.” The more kids know about their bodies, boundaries, intimacy and healthy sexuality the less likely to suffer abuse or to abuse someone else, and more likely to report abuse.

Few things are more distressing than the abuse of children, except perhaps the many long-term repercussions that those victims will continue to endure throughout their lives. The research is clear that the suffering continues long after the sexual abuse has ended.

We need to stop relegating conversations on these difficult topics to whispered secrets in the shadows. As a community we must speak openly about the individual and societal impact of child sexual abuse — along with other ACEs — and commit to making Utah a safer place for all our children. Every life matters. It is time for change!

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.