By Michael Pyrgas,
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Question: What is sexual violence against a minor?
Answer: It is any non-consensual sexual act that is perpetrated against a minor and violates his or her sexual integrity, such as completed, attempted, or threatened forced sex, coerced kissing or fondling, or unwanted exposure to pornography.
Q: What is the extent of this problem in Cyprus?
A: Statistics for Cyprus are not clear. Usually, statistics underrepresent the problem due a veil of secrecy because of the shame, guilt, fear, and stigma associated with it. In the US, approximately 80,000 - 90,000 minors are sexually abused every year. In the US, about 50% of the minors never disclose the sexual abuse to anyone. Many disclose when they are adults. For every child who reports, three to five children do not. Approximately, 20% of caregivers who found out that their child had been sexually abused, did not report this.
Q: What are the psychological consequences on the minor?
A: When sexuality violently intrudes into childhood it can have severe short and long-term effects, for minors, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, psychosomatic problems, sexual dysfunction, promiscuity, panic attacks, sleep difficulties, substance use, behavioural problems, low self-esteem, mutilation, and suicidal behaviour.
Q: What are some of the myths that surround it?
A: Sexual crimes are fraught with misconception, such as:
? It is rare or it will not happen to us. The truth is that it does exist at alarming rates in Cypriot society, as in any society.
? The offender is unknown to the victim or has a specific appearance. On the contrary, the offender is by 95% someone the victim knows, such as family members, relatives, friends, or neighbours.
? The minor "wanted it" because of his or her demeanour or dress. But, it is not the victim's fault if he or she was sexually assaulted.
? The offender is sexually starved. The truth is that the majority of offenders are starved not for sex, but for power and control over the victim.
? Offenders are schizophrenic, belong to a specific ethnic background, or socio-economic status. The truth is that they look like the average person, can be someone we know and like, may come from every walk of life and do not fit in any specific socio-economic, or ethnic group.
Q: How do they approach minors?
A: They target vulnerable minors, such as those who are neglected, mentally or physically challenged. Through seduction they try to gain the trust and confidence of the minor and the family. Usually, they are above suspicion. They take advantage of their profession or hobby to gain increased access to minors. They treat minors in a more understanding and kind way compared to their parents. They try to form emotional bonds by listening to their concerns, paying attention to them, recognising their problems, helping to solve their issues, and promising that their will satisfy their emotional needs. They might provide the minor with presents, financial help, alcohol, and drugs. Or, they might use threats.
Q: What is the role of internet in the sexual abuse of minors?
A: Today's minors live virtually online and many caregivers might not be adequately "digitally informed" to protect them. Sexual abuse on the internet can take many forms, such as sexually overt messages or emails and exposure to sexual images or videos. Not only sexual offenders surf the internet to find victims, but also, often, minors expose themselves to risk when they share personal information online, watch pornography, post self-generated indecent images of themselves online, or send them to their "digital friends", i.e., users whom they met online but have never seen in person.
Q: Can sexually violent offenders be treated?
A: Even though offender treatment programmes have some success, treatment is challenging because the prison milieu is not designed to be therapeutic. Some sexual offenders do not participate voluntarily in treatment. Others have been incarcerated years after they committed their sexual offences. Therapy that starts years after an offence was committed might not be as effective. Adolescent sexual offenders respond better to treatment and they have lower rates of recidivism in adulthood, especially if they have received therapy.
Q: What can we do to stop this serious problem?
A: The most important is to invest in prevention. Children, parents, and society must be aware of it and must have the self-defence coping strategies to reduce the risk of being exposed to sexual violence. This can be achieved through the family, the education system, and the media. Equally important is to build the "infrastructure" to deal with it when it happens, such as inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric facilities, evidence-based offender treatment programs in correctional facilities, and management of offenders in the community. Also, policy-makers must reform the national law and adopt the Lanzarote treaty. Failure to do so results a vicious cycle in which victimised minors are not revealing the sexual abuse and offenders continuing the abuse.