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Living with the aftermath of child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is a heavily perpetrated crime against children. As noted in today's story, more children are sexually abused than adults, according to research. Yet this crime often gets the silent treatment in our community and children are left to suffer if shame and cope with aftereffects that last long after their "childhood" is behind them.

According to research gathered by the child abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light, victims of sexual abuse are at greater risk for suffering from post-traumatic stress, anxiety, suicide attempts. They can develop behavioral problems like aggression, defiance and promiscuity.

These children are at greater risk for struggling in school and suffering poorer thinking skills. They are more likely to drop out, use drugs, suffer health problems, or become involved in crime later in life.

Here's more from the victims of sexual abuse who were interviewed for today's heartbreaking story:

Stephanie Johnson, who was raped at age 5 by a teenager who pulled her from her kindergarten classroom, said that even though her parents immediately pulled her from School 31 and enrolled her in Catholic school and therapy after her attack, she said she never recovered her sense of self worth.

As she got older, she said, her friends and cousins would taunt her. They’d highlight her behavior and say, “That’s why you got raped.”

The fact that she physically matured faster than her peers didn’t help. Though she was an honor roll student through school, she dropped out of college and has found it difficult to stick to her goals of completing her education.

She wonders if she’d be stronger if she hadn’t been raped as a child. Now the mother of nine children, two by a man she loved who died of diabetes in his 30s and seven by her current boyfriend, Stephanie said she spent much of her life struggling to feel worthy of love.

“There’s like a void in my heart,” she said. “I led a lifestyle that was promiscuous, and when I did settle down, I was involved in abusive relationships. I just felt like I was damaged.”

She's also suffered numerous health problems.

Her cousin, Stevo Johnson, said Stephanie and himself, people even less equipped to overcome the trauma they suffered as children.

Though research indicates that girls are more likely than boys to suffer from sexual abuse, Stevo believes few males – especially African-American males – report this crime. They are least equipped to get help because of cultural taboos. They turn to drugs and promiscuity, drink themselves to death or prostitute themselves to strangers, he said.

"A lot of people don’t want to go to anybody," he said. "They don’t want to be labeled, don’t want to be put in a box."

Stevo said it took years to confide in someone about what happened to him. Until then, he coped by trying to blot the attack from his memory. To this day, he said, he wouldn’t be able to recognize his perpetrator if he stood in front of him.

In his search for help, Stevo worked up the courage to speak with his pastor five years ago and gave him a letter sharing what had happened to him. The pastor promised to read it and respond, he said, but the next time they met, the pastor wouldn’t meet his eyes and never spoke with him again.

Both parents and community leaders need to do more, say he and other victims and child advocates.

Keyon Lee, a friend of Stevo’s who started a small online support group for victims of childhood sexual abuse, said he once heard from a woman who was sexually molested as a child by her stepfather for three years. When she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother about it, her mother beat her and blamed her for trying to steal her man.

"I’ve come across entirely too many people who have carried this," said Lee, 39.

He and others believe educators, politicians, and church and community leaders have remained disturbing silent on the matter. Lee said he’s reached out to Common Council members but never heard back.


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