Imagine a childhood disease that affects one in five girls and one in seven
boys before they reach 18 (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994): a disease
that can cause dramatic mood swings, erratic behavior, and even severe
conduct disorders among those exposed; a disease that breeds distrust of
adults and undermines the possibility of experiencing normal sexual
relationships; a disease that can have profound implications for an
individual's future health by increasing the risk of problems such as
substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and suicidal behavior
(Crowell & Burgess, 1996); a disease that replicates itself by causing some
of its victims to expose future generations to its debilitating effects.
Imagine what we, as a society, would do if such a disease existed. We would
spare no expense. We would invest heavily in basic and applied research. We
would devise systems to identify those affected and provide services to
treat them. We would develop and broadly implement prevention campaigns to
protect our children. Wouldn't we?
Such a disease does exist—it’s called child sexual abuse. Our response,
however, has been far from the full-court press reserved for traditional
diseases or health concerns of equal or even lesser magnitude. Perhaps the
perception of sexual abuse as a law enforcement problem or our discomfort in
confronting sexual issues contributes to our complacency. Whatever the
reason, we have severely underestimated the effects of this problem on our
children's health and quality of life.
Excerpted from a commentary by Dr. James Mercy’s, a researcher with the
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Mercy, J. A. (1999). Having New
Eyes: Viewing Child Sexual Abuse as a Public Health Problem. *Sexual Abuse:
A Journal of Research and Treatment, 11*(4), 317-321.