Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are the Devastating Consequences of Sex Abuse Inevitable?

Guest Post by Dr. Rise Goldstein

Childhood sexual abuse is one of the most serious problems facing Orthodox Jewry.

I firmly believe that in terms of sheer numbers of children abused – both past and present we are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. Only now are sex abuse victims getting the courage to come forward. The stigma of being abused and the repercussion for the family which included being tainted for Shiduchim often forced even good parents to convince their children not to tell anyone what happened. The abandonment that many victims felt; the inner turmoil that many victims faced ended up in suicides in some cases. Many others went OTD. Things are beginning to change but there are still many impediments.

Had the victims been embraced rather than shunted aside – had the sexual predators been treated like the dangerous predators they were rather than ignored or ‘exiled’ to other communities where they could begin their predatory practices anew - perhaps we could have significantly reduced the numbers of young people going OTD. We could have probably even reduced the very population of sex abusers themselves since it is pretty well known that sex abusers were at one time themselves abused.

Nowhere is this issue more heavily discussed than on Orthodox Jewish blogs. I don’t think it can be denied that bloggers have been in the forefront of forcing this issue onto the front burner and making even those who condemn the internet and blogs to pay more attention and begin revise their attitude toward the problem.

But there is also a danger of overkill. Unfortunately it’s been all too easy to ‘rile up the troops’ to an almost mob mentality. Constant media reports about sex abuse - sometimes by high profile Orthodox Jews, books like ‘Hush’, and suicides by victims like Moti Borger - can easily make any normal person become so outraged that they lose all perspective and rationality.

That is the last thing that we need. Are all sex abuse victims the same? Do they all go OTD? Are their lives always ruined? What are the real statistics? Is it possible that some victims actually do get on with their lives? What are the percentages?

In my continuous effort to seek truth I present unedited and in its entirety the following guest post by a mental health professional, epidemiologist Dr. Rise Goldstein.

I would like to offer a respectful and professionally informed response to the various postings on Emes ve-Emunah concerning childhood sexual abuse as an epidemiologist (epidemiology = distribution of health conditions, risk factors, prognostic factors given the presence of health conditions, etc., in defined populations) and health services researcher specializing in alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental health disorders.

In addition to my Ph.D. in epidemiology with a minor in biostatistics, I have master's degrees in public health and clinical social work. Alongside a 23 1/2-year (thus far, b'li ayn hara) research career, I've taught graduate coursework on the epidemiology of interpersonal violence, including child abuse.

I can only say "kol hakavod" to you for highlighting that childhood sexual abuse is prevalent and serious, and that it is 100% unacceptable for our communal leadership to try to sweep it under the rug rather than pursue appropriate measures to rein in perpetrators and provide scientifically based services to survivors.

However, the devastating consequences you so often quote in your blog, while real, are *not* inevitable in all survivors, but reflect a *subset* of abuse survivors who present to therapists. Considering that the sources of information you cite on the blog are therapists, rather than epidemiologic studies, their knowledge and information accurately reflect what they see.

However, this group of survivors is a biased sample because, from the general population, many abuse survivors do not show up in therapists' offices, let alone for issues related to abuse. Moreover, in studies of the general population, after factors such as family history of mental health and substance abuse disorders that could mix with possible effects of sexual abuse, as well as the severity of the abuse and other co-occurring forms of childhood adversity, are taken into account, the strength of associations between sexual abuse and adverse mental health states is considerably less than one might expect based on clinical samples.

The survivors who seek therapy are disproportionately the ones unable to cope on their own and move forward, among whom particularly severe abuse (likely involving intercourse, for example, as opposed to "less invasive" forms of abuse), and particularly severe and multifaceted mental health problems, are common.

As well, while sexual abuse is in itself a major adversity, it rarely occurs in isolation. That is, a child who is sexually abused is typically exposed to a lot of other bad things, including other forms of abuse, as well.

Please note: that nontrivial proportions of sexual abuse survivors are resilient, i.e., that they find ways to thrive despite the adversities to which they are exposed, EMPHATICALLY DOES NOT MEAN that sexual abuse is OK. Nevertheless, the severely affected population in therapy, particularly for the long term, is not representative of all survivors.

There is some evidence that the most resilient survivors are those who are immediately believed and offered both physical safety (including medical care as indicated by their particular circumstances) and *appropriate* emotional support. On the other hand, when adults around child victims either disbelieve the children, or "catastrophize" incidents of abuse, such behavior may do more harm than good both in the near term and with regard to outcomes later in life.

Again--none of this is to say that sexual abuse should not be a considered a serious and unconscionable situation that urgently demands redress. However, to say that it inevitably leads to lifelong catastrophe is scientifically inaccurate. The implications in the Torah-observant world of this fact are far reaching, including but not limited to the realm of shidduchim: that abuse survivors need not, and should not, be regarded as inevitably damaged goods to be avoided at all costs.

I would also respectfully note that it is not only sexual abuse that is prevalent, serious, and in need of acknowledgement and remediation in Jewish ranks. Emotional and physical abuse, "even" without sexual abuse, can leave survivors with scars no less serious than those of sexual abuse. However, emotionally and physically abused children and adult survivors of these adversities are told, at least as often as those who have been sexually abused, that, to use a decidedly un-Jewish expression, they must "turn the other cheek" toward their abusers, particularly when the abusers are parents or teachers.

In my considered professional opinion, the Torah-observant world has a lot of work to do when it comes to addressing *all* forms of abuse, and the sooner it rises to its tasks, the better.

Rise Goldstein (Ph.D., M.P.H.) Silver Spring, MD