Social incidence of sexual abuse

@phdinparenting on Twitter, the author of the simply great parenting blog (obligatory reading for all readers of my blog who have small children) reasonably enough asked me to back up my statement there – in response to her question on the subject – that approximately 100% of people had suffered from sexual abuse as children.

The answer doesn’t need a lot of space, but more than 140 characters for sure, so I am posting it here!

I have basically three reasons for making this statement (although I admit a certain residual hyperbole):

1. My experience in numerous personal development workshops, in which people who never suspected they had been the victims of sexual abuse, have realized through the therapeutic work, that in fact they had. This implies that any self-reported survey must underestimate the real incidence of the problem. (In any case, we also know that even people who ARE aware they have been the victims of sexual abuse, often do not talk about it, even anonymously).

2. Retrojection from people’s current behavior and attitudes to sex, based on my understanding of the psychoanalytic basis of such attitudes. Sexual neuroses are very widespread and must have their origin in pregenital sexual experience, even if (see the next point) no actual physical abuse has occurred. (Freud famously concluded from what he thought was overreporting of pregenital sexual abuse in therapeutic contexts that childhood sexual fantasies, and specifically the Oedipus complex, played a major role in the development of neurosis. I am not so sure that Freud was not simply unwilling or unable to accept the extent of actual abuse in society.)

We do have data on sexual dysfunctioning – we know (lower bounds for) the incidence of, for males, premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction, though we have less idea, because we have less basis to measure it, of the incidence of penile insensitivity; and for females, of partial or complete anorgasmia and of less common conditions (in the female) like what has been colloquially called “sex addiction”.

3. Most importantly, I probably have a wider definition of sexual abuse than is commonplace, but I would like to defend this definition; it is real sexual abuse because it leads to sexual neuroses (I have a correspondingly wide definition of sexuality itself).

Thus, whilst I am quite confident that the incidence of physical sexual abuse is high enough (ie too high, and at least 20% on a conservative consensus estimate), I would also view as sexual abuse all of the following:

  • Genital mutilation in both sexes
  • An attitude towards the child’s sexuality which is based on adult perverted sexual scripts, regardless of whether or not these have actually been acted upon (but in some measure, I am sure they almost always have)
  • Bizarre, unnatural and perverted attitudes to sexuality generally (I’m very tolerant and these are not morally loaded terms for me, but the lack of a healthy model can only have the effect of at least blunting the child’s natural sexual development)
  • Poor or inexistent sexual education, especially timely information about periods and ejaculation
  • Parenting behavior which degrades or humiliates the child, even if not explicitly in its sexual identity

And that’s a short list – I could go on.

We should also remember that the sole force capable of corrupting the child’s sexuality is not the parents – unfortunately, if at least you believe you can get parenting right. Parents are not all-powerful. Other adults in the child’s environment may abuse it sexually and many of the indirect forms of abuse are, I believe, totally endemic in the school system, at least it is my experience (or let’s say it is my deep fear, because I don’t get to sit in my toddler’s classroom).

So, in short, societal violence and attitudes to sexuality basically corrupt us all. Actual sexual acts between adults and children are themselves endemic, but if you escape them, their direct ripple effects to society anyway result in everyone being caught up, if not directly, then at very close quarters.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that if we could simply respect the sexual identity of children, we would transform society beyond anything we can even imagine today.

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One Response to Social incidence of sexual abuse

  1. Jangali says:

    Wow, my most-viewed ever blog post! 🙂

    I should probably also have mentioned toilet training and toilet habits as a form of sexual abuse – for example compulsive enemas is something really degrading and unpleasant for which it’s hard to find another term. In certain European cultures this seems to be widespread practice.

    In my earlier article on premature ejaculation, I cited some more evidence on that subject. According to Advaita Maria Bach (, 5-8% of people, of both genders, have physically normal sexuality. We’re not talking here extended orgasms, just normal functioning. I find that figure plausible enough.

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