The Emotional Damage of Child Sexual Exploitation

Explore the dark reality of child sexual exploitation. It's a global issue with lasting effects. Let's confront it together.

There are fewer crimes in society that trigger greater public outrage than the sexual exploitation of children. For some, it conjures up memories of horrific television documentaries showing how children are sexually trafficked for commercial gain; for others, it brings back childhood events of shameful sexual conduct with much older persons. Race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic standing does not prevent the sexual exploitation of children — it happens across the human social spectrum. The effects of sexual abuse linger into the person's adult life giving birth to many physical and psychological troubles. We examine this phenomenon a bit closer so that we don't lose our empathy, sticking our heads into the sand and pretending that this isn't really a big deal, saying, It only happens in some parts of Asia, South America and Africa, so why worry.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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In my decade-and-a-half as a hypnotherapist, I've seen many cases of clients who were sexually abused as children. Roughly, around ⅓ of my female clients and about ⅕ of my mail clients were sexually abused before the age of 14. This is a biased statistic of course as it is only draws these guesses from a predominantly affluent Caucasian client-base. The actual figures are far worse. The horrendous effects of sexual abuse, leave long-lasting scars on the children's physical and mental wellbeing. These are scars that are often visible even when the children are mature adults. There is a statistical risk curve to child sexual abuse beginning as early as aged 1-2 increasing steadily until it peaks around the age of 12-14 before tailing off. Child sexual abuse becomes rape only after the child reaches the age of consent, which here in South Africa is at age 16, even though a child only legally becomes an adult at age 18. This puts pubescent children most at risk. When it comes to family structures and living arrangements, one that leads most often to child sexual abuse is when a single parent lives with his or her partner. Next, at half the risk, is when a child is parentless. There are many ways to survey this situation and another is to gather risk statistics for different groups of children. The largest group of at-risk children are runaway, thrown away, or homeless children who survive by selling sex to acquire food, shelter, clothing, and other things needed to survive. Child sexual exploitation runs across all groupings, although children from poor families appear to be at higher risk of commercial sexual exploitation.

The physical and psychological effects on abused children are horrendous. There is the real risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. There is also the serious risk of physical damage and disfigurement. But the psychological damage is the hidden part of the iceberg: sleeping and eating disorders; helplessness; guilt, shame and humiliation; shock, denial and disbelief; disorientation and confusion; and a host of anxiety disorders including [PTSD] post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, panic attacks, depression and mood changes. Then there is the sinister risk of Traumatic Bonding (known as the Stockholm Syndrome) which causes victims to develop sympathetic sentiments towards their captors, often sharing their opinions and acquiring romantic feelings for them as a survival strategy. Captors exert coercive control over their victims, instilling fear yet expecting gratitude for allowing them to live or for any other perceived favours the perpetrator bestows upon the child, however small that might be.

There are two main branches of child sexual abuse: private and commercial exploitation. Trafficking of children is the fastest-growing and most lucrative enterprise worldwide and Cape Town and its surrounding regions have been identified as a world centre for it. Many countries, people and organisations do a lot counter commercial child sexual exploitation but there is a lot more that can be done too. The modern predominant worldview of commercial sexual exploitation of minors is that of a young girl prostitute. This perception tends to focus on the plight of women and young girls, while young boys are left out in research, policy and practice. Yet, studies show that sexual exploitation equally affects boys and transgendered youth too. They are a high-risk, often overlooked, hidden population . The (UNODC) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported (in 2012) on the international prevalence of child sexual abuse, saying that "of every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy."

While most of us are familiar with the conventional pimp who preys upon and kidnaps children off the streets, this is not typically how children enter 'the life' of prostitution. As abused children age, they may rent accommodation with several others in the life, expecting the younger ones to work for them in exchange for shelter and room to sleep. There is also a situation in some families where parents pimp out their kids to support their drug addiction. These kids enter the system for various reasons but the underlying reasons are that they come from homes where they are subject to multiple traumas in their childhood, like sexual abuse, substance abuse or domestic violence. In some cases, youth are asked to leave home because of gender identification issues. Many youths enter the life of prostitution between the ages of 11-14 but their sexual exploitive situation can usually be traced back to the ages of 6-10 as documented cases of child abuse . Moreover, in family controlled exploitation situations, the pimp can often be a child's mother or grandmother, who tells the youth, "we all make money together, we're in this household and you have to contribute."

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term paedophile is defined as someone who is sexually interested in children but there is confusion between the terms paedophilia and child molestation are used in different ways, even by professionals. Paedophilia usually refers to an adult psychological disorder characterised by a preference for prepubescent children as sexual partners; this preference may or may not be acted upon. The term hebephilia is sometimes used to describe adult sexual attractions to adolescents or children who have reached puberty. Whereas paedophilia and hebephilia refer to psychological propensities, child molestation and child sexual abuse are used to describe actual sexual contact between an adult and someone who has not reached the legal age of consent. In this context, the latter individual is referred to as a child, even though he or she may be a teenager.

Paedophiles and hebephiles are not always obscure old men and women who stalk children but they also come from the ranks of celebrities too. Many well-known people were convicted and jailed for child molestation, some were acquitted while others were not prosecuted at all because of mitigating circumstances, like Woody Allen who sexually molested his adopted daughter. Others are Mike Tyson, the professional boxer; Ian Watkins, former frontman of the Welsh rock group, Lostprophets; Roman Polanski the famed movie director; Will Hayden, star of "Sons of Guns"; Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop," and let's not forget about Rolf Harris, an Australian entertainer whose career encompassed work as a musician, singer-songwriter, composer, comedian, actor, painter and television personality. He was jailed on twelve counts of indecent assault, on four female victims then aged between eight and nineteen. Ironically, in 1985, Harris took part in a short British educational documentary, "Kids Can Say No!" intended to teach children how to avoid sexually abusive situations, how to escape such situations, and how to find help if they are abused. Here's a snippet:

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Harris' campaign against paedophilia in this movie can "be seen in retrospect as either monumental self-delusion or a sign of deep, self-lacerating guilt." Paedophiles can be anyone — old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, professional or not, and they come from all races. They work to master their manipulative skills and often unleash them on troubled children by first becoming their friend and building the child's self-esteem. They may refer to the child as special or mature, appealing to their need to be heard and understood then entice them with adult type activities that are often sexual in content such as viewing pornography or posing scantily dressed for a photograph. Paedophiles may also offer their victims alcohol or drugs to hamper their ability to resist activities or smudge the memory of the events that occurred.

Members of disliked minority groups are often stereotyped as representing a danger to the majority's most vulnerable members. For example, Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices. Black men in the United States were often lynched after being falsely accused of raping White women. In a similar fashion, gay people have often been portrayed as a threat to children. There is a fresh resurgence of irate, Bible-punching pastors who use the words homosexual and paedophile as if they were synonyms. They are not! Some homosexuals are paedophiles, just as their heterosexual counterparts are also. Sadly, according to a Mayo Clinic report, "Heterosexual pedophiles […] have on average abused 5.2 children and committed an average of 34 sexual acts vs homosexual pedophiles who have on average abused 10.7 children and committed an average of 52 acts."

Paedophiles who engage in Child Sex Tourism [CST] typically travel from their home countries to developing countries to participate in commercial sex acts with children. The crime is fuelled by weak law enforcement, social media, ease of travel, and poverty. "Situational abusers" do not intentionally travel to seek sex with a child but take sexual advantage of children once they are in country. "Preferential child sex abusers" or paedophiles travel to expressly exploit children in the foreign country.

What on earth goes awry in an adult's mind to motivate this kind of behaviour with children? Psychotherapist, Roni Weisberg-Ross, gives this insight: Studies show that between 30-70% of young sexual abusers and 10-22% of adult sexual abusers have themselves been sexually abused . This may be a form of an acquired interpersonal relationship style, developed to cope with the childhood abuse. Children who were abused are, through their experience, taught to abuse as a way of communicating and connecting with others. Their abusers often become role models for their own behaviour. Almost no one consciously sets out to become abusive. The behaviour is handed down over the generations because it is learned behaviour. It becomes instinctive and the abuser may not know any other way to behave. Thus, as perceived by them, abuse can be a natural way to communicate and release the anxiety surrounding the original abuse. It is a way to turn the tables and finally have a sense of power or control in their intimate relationships later on in life. Abused children grow up with low self-esteem. Many feel inadequate. They wonder if they deserved being abused. Oftentimes, their abuser convinced them that they deserved the abuse, while simultaneously telling them they loved them. Deep down, abuse survivors often don't believe that they deserve a healthy, loving relationship, even if they know what that looks like. They carry lots of anger about what happened to them. The world is not a fair place. Their defence systems, while initially traumatized, have now become over-reactive.

Psychology Today describes it this way, "Victim identity is focus on damages suffered at the hands of other people." The victim's desire to be identified as a victim creates a sense of entitlement and provides a motive to devalue anyone who does not offer special recognition and validation of victim status or compensation for it . There are many adults who were abused as children, who would like to get recognised as having been a victim of abuse. Why? Because they seek sympathy and understanding from others around them. The hope is to fostering a nurturing, understanding and compassionate interaction between them. This however, is often impossible to do. Any disclosure of victimisation as a child may lead to witch-hunts, police involvement and other social and legal hardships. So, victims often hide their identity — it's safer that way. But the need for recognition and compensation is strong and the line blurs between emotional reactivity and the need for victim protection and it can push the abused to become the abuser. The same article in Psychology Today has this to say: Abuse victims, like anyone in relationships with high emotional reactivity, build automatic defence systems, which include pre-emptive strikes — if you expect to be criticised, stonewalled, or demeaned, you may as well be the first to do it. Victims who carry a lot of emotions can easily develop a reactive narcissism that makes them seem aloof, intolerant and they may even come across as abusers.

Let me share a few real examples of how child sexual abuse affects some people because it'll help you to understand their plight and, if you are a person who was or is being abused as child, it'll help you to put context to some of your behaviour patterns and to explain some of the reasons behind what you do. These are the stories of some people who came to seek my therapeutic help:

The first is of two women, both of whom are outwardly functional, socially adept individuals. Both own their own business. One is married and the other is not. Both are morbidly obese. One of them came to see me about her weight and the other sought my help to set-aside her past and to reclaim a sense of place and purpose in the world. During our respective conversations, the truth emerged that they had been repeatedly sexually molested as children — one from puberty and the other from very young.

There is the Law of Predominant Emotional Motivators. It's best to describe it as a seesaw with opposite forces acting against each other. Pressing down on the seat of positivity is the normal motivation experienced by most people. This positive motivation keeps one looking good, being healthy, feeling whole and complete, having a good social group of friends, and being loved and cherished by one's family. If there was no force on the seesaw's negative seat, only the slightest positive motivation would tip the seesaw in the direction of positivity. Indeed, many people have no trouble finding the motivation to exercise routinely, eat healthily, dress sexily and integrate well with family and friends. It's our social norm. However, when another stronger emotional force bears down on the seesaw's negative seat, the seesaw tips the other way, resulting in binge-eating, hiding oneself away, becoming socially phobic, falling into slovenly behaviour and dressing more frumpishly. The people who need to use such a little positive force to tip the seesaw towards positivity, don't always understand why those, with a seesaw tipped the opposite way, behave the way they do. When the seesaw tips towards negative behaviour it can only be remedied in one of two ways, either by adding more force to the positive side; or by reducing the force on the negative side.

Much of the therapy aimed at addressing weight-management issues, targets the building of positive motivation. These include visualisations of a slimmer you, healthier diets, counting calories and a whole lot more. Group workshops add to the positive motivation by creating peer-pressure to conform and it is here where one is likely to get a thumbs-up for achieving one's goal. If one builds enough incentive, the seesaw will tip positively — but the big question is, can you hold it there? You might remember from our New Year's Resolutions show that one of the prerequisites to changing habits, is to make sure that your goal is believable, achievable and most importantly, sustainable. It takes some strong willpower and concerted effort over an extended period of time to keep the positive outweighing the negative. Many people just can't sustain it and relapse. It takes only a little extra negativity, like a work crisis or some other disaster, to add that smidgeon of force to the negative side, causing the seesaw to tip back.

This is particularly important to realise when trying to resolve issues that stem from childhood sexual abuse. It is vital to focus attention on the negative motivators because resolving them becomes the key to long-term success. One often finds erroneous beliefs that underpin the negative motivational force. Here's a typical example of some of this subconscious chatter that builds momentum for failure, "If I'm nice to people, they may think that I'm being flirtatious yet any sexual advance from the other person will remind me of my past and frighten me. It's best therefore, that I don't make eye-contact with anyone here today." What about this bit of internal, subconscious dialogue, "If I dress sexily, I'll attract unwanted sexual attention so it's best that I dress more frumpishly and allow myself to be more slovenly unattractive." What these statements really mean is this, "The heavier and uglier I become, the safer I feel." That's a tragic statement to make but it's a statement that encourages negative, self-abusive behaviour. It is easy to see how this kind of negative belief can easily become the predominant emotional motivator and tip the seesaw negatively. It takes months of therapy to eradicate old beliefs as one builds a new solid base. Surgery, medicine and positive motivation is useful but limited and is prone to relapse. Reframing one's childhood sexual abuse must be done to make sustainable changes in life.

But obesity is only one of many consequences of childhood sexual abuse. Another sad one is when the molestation interferes with one's normal sexual functioning. Past abuse can leave one frigid or impotent as an adult. It accounts for some erectile dysfunction, and can cause phobias around intimacy. This can play havoc with one's sexual relationships later on in life. Yet another tragic consequence of childhood sexual abuse is the self-loathing and destructive self-mutilation that some develop. A common erroneous belief that underpins this kind of behaviour is, "I can only blame myself for what happened! I should have been braver and spoken out. I should have screamed for help. I got sexually aroused and that encouraged the perpetrator to continue doing it. I'm a disgusting, promiscuous beast, hated by God. I am so soiled, there is no more hope in life."


Here's another interesting case of mine. A very handsome, confident young gay man came to seek some help. He was smitten with guilt, shame and embarrassment because of what started shortly after puberty and which lasted for another decade. He had had multiple raunchy sexual encounters with a few of his male relatives, with one of his teachers and with a spiritual mentor (a priest in fact). I easily understood this young man's predicament. But, as he told his story and I silently pondered why he had never said no to any of them or why he had not called for help. Was this the cause of his guilt, shame and embarrassment? Was his homosexuality a factor that enticed the older men or was it a source of inner sexual confusion that left him bewildered about himself, and thus unable to seek help? I have a personal reference for this and could readily sympathise with him. As a young gay man growing up in a Jehovah's Witness household, I found myself between a rock and a hard-place because, although I desperately wanted to talk to somebody about my sexual inclinations, I knew that I couldn't because I would have to either deny my homosexuality to stay inside the church, or else disclosure without change, would have had me expelled from the organisation. I then believed I had no choice but to remain silent and self-reconcile. Might there be a parallel in this young man's life too? Then his story took an unexpected turn which left me rebooting my thought processes. It was not the adult men that had seduced the boy, it was the other way around. As the boy awoke to his sexuality, he went out of his way to get close to the older men. He directed his affections to seduce them. Furthermore, his love of these men is still very strong and they still share close ties with each other to this day. He loves them dearly. He told me, "There were teachers that taught me mathematics, languages and science but these men taught me how to love and to be intimate." He also added, "My guilt, shame and embarrassment does not come from what we did together but comes from what they must be feeling about themselves. They might be thinking of themselves as paedophiles but I want them to know that they never were." I know what society expects from adults when it comes to the sexual exploitation of children, and I agree with it. These men, possibly without knowing the full context of the boy's background, went ahead and had sex with him. That must carry culpability. However, and herein lies the conundrum, how do we teach our children about the birds and the bees? Are they to learn through observation and mimicry as they do with nearly every other aspect of life? Most adults shy away from sex education, leaving it up to biology teachers to convey the rudiments of reproduction to the kids. What happens in the townships where parents and young children occupy the same room? The parents must copulate but I have no idea how it is done to maintain that fine line of what is proper and what is not. I, like so many other children, fumbled my way through sexual self-discovery. Was this young gay boy wrong to seek the sexual attention of the older men in his life?

I would love to get your opinion about this situation and I'll give you contact details in a moment or two.

For those who escaped sexual abuse as a child, we may never truly know the full extent of damages it does to the victims of childhood sexual abuse. A few things are certain: as an abused child, you never, ever made a mistake. It was never, ever your fault. Adults are meant to be the leaders and even if it was your idea to seduce an adult into having sex with you, it was still not your fault. The adult should have declined and walked away, disclosing the incident to your parents so that proper medical and psychological help could be sought. It's very tragic when adults profit and take advantage of the situation with children. Not only should they know better but it can and does destroy the child's future. Please, I urge you, if you were abused as a child, seek some professional help because you can get your life back on track. If you are a person with paedophiliac tendencies, seek counselling even if you know that your therapist is obliged to mention your actions to law enforcement agencies.

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