The sexualization of children is not the same as child sexual abuse and yet the lasting impacts can be just as pervasive. When we sexualize children we place them in adult roles, as opposed to seeing them as children. The sexualization of children refers to placing adult attributes on a child’s body and then assigning meaning to it. Statement such as, “that outfit makes her look slutty”, “she looks fast in those booty shorts,” etc are examples of sexualization of children. A lot of the sexualized comments are based in fear. Fear about the child becoming violated, but there is fear, especially when commenting on young girls, in their sexuality.
Fear and Sexualization
This sexualization, because it is steeped in fear, can impact the child. Children look to the adults in their lives, the protecters, to give messages about who they are as well as the world around them. So when we make comments about their bodies, relate this to fear around sex and sexuality, we create an association between the two. (A link between fear and sex-meaning sex or sexuality is something to be afraid of) At some point children grow up to be adults and will be faced with the very real biological reality of sex. But sex or sexuality doesn’t just occur all alone, it’s wrapped up in identity, empowerment, confidence, self worth, and more.
In sexualizing children we also give the message that their clothes or even their bodies convey sex. Not just sex but an openness to engage in sex, so when a child is sexually abused they feel like they are responsible for this abuse. As adults the meaning they make is a little different but when I have worked with children, soon after the abuse, the meaning they make is that some how they encouraged or “wanted” the encounter even though they didn’t want to. This is part of their shame and guilt dynamic that many survivors of sexual abuse struggle with.
Children Are Human: Just Like All of Us They Need Connection
Remember that children just like us adults need connection. Our relational bonds provide safety, comfort, nurturance, protection, and love. Healthy relationships can provide a buffer from long lasting trauma related symptoms. This natural desire to connect is what an abuser relies on as they are grooming the child and engaging in sexual abuse. So when you mix a history of sexualization with sexual abuse you have a survivor who questions themselves. Some of these folks might not even recognize that they were being sexually abused and may actually enter a “consensual” relationship with their abuser while most just feel a lot of guilt and believe they deserved the abuse because “they seduced” the abuser. (The seduction [myth] being that they sought the connection with the abuser-that feeling of being loved that we all need as humans) Both of these ways of thinking are problematic and impacts the beliefs a survivor will have about themselves.
4 Tips To Help Them Stop Blaming Themselves For The Sexual Abuse They Endured
In the previous blog I shared some tips on how you can stop the sexualization of the child in your life. This requires and increased awareness of how you and the people in your child’s life use language, as well as setting and upholding boundaries. You can read about those tips here, otherwise the tips below can be used as a guide for helping your child survivor of sexual abuse stop blaming themselves for the sexual abuse they’ve endured.
1. Normalize their desire to connect and want to be loved. Remember we all want to be love and to be connected. This is one of our biological drives along with self protection. The two are actually intertwined, as the same neural networks involved with the stress response system are involved with attachment. When your child expresses that it was their fault or feels guilt for having cared for the abuser, remind them that this is normal. The abuser focused on building a connection with them, it wasn’t genuine on their part, but you (the survivor) didn’t know that. So the feelings you have are completely normal and validate. It’s ok to give voice to them and to feel conflicted and confused. You (the caregiver/support person) can remind them (the survivor) how much you and others genuinely love and care about them. Remember healing takes time and this is part of the survivors healing journey.
2. Remind them that the abuser did something wrong not them. The abuser is the one who lied and manipulated the child. The child was just being normal and was seeking out a normal healthy relationship with genuine care and support. The abuser is the one who manipulated this and perverted this with their bad intentions. True love and care is about reciprocity, mutual care, and enjoyment. Both people have good intentions. There is nothing you (the survivor) could do to “make” someone violate them.
3. Be present for when they want to process feelings and let them take the lead. Don’t push your child into talking but if they want to talk be present. If you can’t take time in the moment take a moment to at least discuss a different time when you won’t be distracted to talk. Then you follow through. Show up for your child. During this time when they want to talk just listen. Don’t push. Keep your own statements short and sweet. Ask them how they would like to be supported-what methods help them stay regulated and offer that. For some they want to be held, for others they don’t want any touch but they might still need to physically hold something, so a pillow or stuffed animal can be helpful. Once your child wants to stop talking allow them that control. End the conversation, with a reminder that you will always be there to listen when they need to talk. This is their healing journey.
4. Get them (and you) professional help. A licensed mental health therapist with experience in treating survivors of child sexual abuse will know how to support your child on their healing journey. The great ones will also be there for you. They will give you the tools you can use at home to support your child and even yourself as you are bound to have a lot of your own feelings about the sexual abuse. They may encourage you to find your own therapist so you can have your space to process this huge trauma.
The sexualization of children is a societal problem that we all need to do our work to change. The sexualization of children can leave children, especially young girls, to develop a lot of fears and insecurities about their bodies that can last long into their adulthood. When children are sexually abused and they also have that history of sexualization they often feel like they did something to encourage the abuser. They take on a lot of blame, guilt, and shame. Some survivors even enter “consensual” sexual relationships with their abusers because of the mind manipulation of early sexualization, grooming, and sexual abuse. So again let’s be more intentional with how we talk about children and stay clear of sexualization of them.