When a child experiences severe trauma, the trauma remains trapped in the various layers of the child’s being – not just the physical body – unless it is released and prevented from hijacking the child’s body, heart, mind, or spirit again. The traumatized child may react in fear or powerlessness to harmless situations. Some hyper-vigilantly look out for danger, even when no danger is present. Simply put, the child’s sense of safety has been destroyed.
Trauma can program the intelligence of the physical body to protect and defend itself. When the child sees or hears the abuser approaching, the body begins to panic and engages in a stress response. This stress reaction can be triggered by anything that reminds the child of the abuser or anyone the child suspects will behave like their abuser. The stress reaction is triggered by even the thought or memory of the abuser.
But there’s hope. The sense of safety can be restored. Of course, the child must be removed from hostile and unsafe environments. The child also has to learn not to unwittingly create a hostile environment.
Research by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Gabor Maté, and Dr. Peter Levine reveal effective ways to restore the traumatized child’s sense of safety.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk found performing in theater plays help restore agency and power, yoga helps reconnect their consciousness back into their bodies, and that specific eye movement patterns provide relief from chronic, overwhelming emotions.
Dr. Gabor Maté delves into the impact of childhood trauma and resulting symptoms, such as addictive behaviors used to sooth and calm themselves. The addictive behaviors expand beyond just alcohol and drug abuse. He affirms the need to restore the child’s sense of self and approach the behavior with compassion and understanding.
Dr. Peter Levine guides traumatized clients to mindful awareness of their physical body’s translation of the harm experienced in the past. He presents somatic techniques to release chronic stress and reprogram the body to exist comfortably in safe environments.
With better understanding of the root causes of trauma and with the various tools and techniques shared by these trauma experts, we can seek alternative approaches of relief of childhood trauma.
For people who have been sexually abused as children, the life path to overcoming the trauma suffered is not a clear, straight line. Sometimes the path is a series of loops where the overall hope is progression towards peace of mind, peace of heart and maybe even to a joyful life.
Some of us thrive as adults. We managed to perform well academically and secure stable jobs. We start a loving family with a trustworthy partner. But we may stumble along the way. It’s important to realize when and why we’re stumbling and to be compassionate with ourselves along the way.
Some of us jump into situations that perpetuate our own victimization as we try to fill the hole of unworthiness in our being. However, some suffer continuous victimization through means beyond our control, such as through the distribution of child sexual abuse material depicting our exploitation.
We are breaking our silence and joining hands with experts who can help disrupt this distribution. Teams of humble heroes are committed to safeguarding children across the globe.
On 10 March 2023, ECPAT and PPSEAWA hosted an online event dedicated the voices of child survivors of sexual exploitation to better understand “their personal lived experiences with disclosure, their engagement with law enforcement mechanisms, the criminal justice process and with social services”. Snow White O. Smelser, who currently serves as a UNODC child safety advisor, shared the following during the event.
Warm greetings from Thailand. Thank you, ECPAT and PPSEAWA, for honoring the voices of survivors of child sexual exploitation. This platform brings hope to child survivors who don’t have the opportunity or the courage to speak for themselves … or whose voices get muted.
Sadly, some victims of sexual exploitation and abuse do not survive and thrive. To cope with the deep trauma, many fall into long-term antisocial behavior, like alcoholism and drug addiction. Some can’t cope so commit suicide.
I myself survived child sexual abuse from the ages of 6 to 9. I was a shy, angelic child, loved by all my teachers, and my parents taught me to “do as you’re told (by adults)”. I didn’t understand what my uncle was doing to me until I learned in school about abuse in its different forms. I then felt so guilty and dirty and cursed with sexiness. He threatened to kill my mother if I told anyone. It was hard to focus on maintaining good grades in school when my mind and heart were suffering. I attempted suicide when I was 9. As I waited for the fatal end to occur, I remember suddenly changing my mind. I realized that I didn’t want my mom to suffer with the heartbreak of losing me. Luckily, my suicide attempt failed – but I suffered psychologically and emotionally in fear of boys and men until my late teenage years. At 16, I decided that my abuser would no longer have power over my emotions and my life.
In the 1990s, emailing and surfing the Internet became common practice in my university. I loved technology and its benefits. I studied web design and development and began my career in the tech industry building websites for local companies. I was in Friendster and MySpace. I searched for my abuser online back then, but I didn’t find him in those online platforms. I was free from him, and I was thriving.
In 2007, I was unexpectedly hired by the Royal Thai Police’s specialist division on crimes against women and children as their in-house translator. To help me learn the necessary Thai technical language, the police introduced me to ECPAT resources in English and in Thai. (I have loved ECPAT ever since!)
I remember when the Thai police arrested the swirly-face Canadian man wanted by INTERPOL for sexually abusing children in Thailand. I sat in the room with the suspect, quietly trembling in fear as childhood memories came flooding back. I kept my adverse childhood experience a secret even when I joined the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok to work on a project specifically on transnational child sex offenders. My experience gave me a special perspective when observing the efforts made and not made to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Disclosing our traumatic experience of sexual abuse is a tremendously difficult feat. We’ve already been vulnerable, exploited, and wounded by the abusers. Are we brave enough to face the heartbreak when the people we trust enough to disclose this violation to just dismiss us with their disbelief and denial? It hurts to open up and hear, “you were just having bad dreams”, “I didn’t see him do that to you”, “you’re just making up stories”. I have heard worse reactions from untrained police officers and even the mothers as they blamed the children for inciting the abuse. We need to provide a safe space for child victims to be heard and show them our efforts of seeking appropriate help.
Now, as a UNODC advisor on child sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline, I am blessed to be working with the brilliant and passionate Ending Violence against Children team, led by Alexandra Martins in Vienna. No more keeping the secret. This time I told my new team and our lovely UK Government donor that I myself am a child survivor. I told them if my abuse had happened in this digital age and crossed-over online, I would not be alive right now. They embraced my disclosure with empathy, and we all are driven to make real-life impact in honor of child survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse online and offline. We are partnering with child-centered NGOs, including ECPAT, on something that has not been tried before. Something that may rock the online and offline worlds.
In conclusion, victims become survivors when we can overcome the impact of abuse and live without fear. With love and support, we can be like lotus flowers that start off in the mud, reach for the sky, and blossom into beautiful adults. Thank you, Dr. Raj, for encouraging me to share my story. Thank you all for providing this platform to acknowledge and share the voices of child survivors around the world. It means more to us than my words can say.
He walked to a neighbor’s house and asked if there was any yard work he could do. Smelling the alcohol on his breath, the neighbor hesitated and decided to let him inside the back yard.
As she walked him to the back yard, she told him, “The tree needs some trimming. The branches are growing into the electrical power lines. I can only give you $20.”
He smiled and fetched his equipment. This is one of the few odd jobs he could secure around town to pay his bills. Over 50, he was divorced, recently homeless, and struggling to find steady work that would accommodate his drinking schedule.
People judge him, pity him, and look down on him for not being able to stop drinking alcohol. He went to local treatment programs for alcohol dependency, remained sober for a couple of years, and relapsed. Again and again, until the program managers gave up on him.
He drinks to dull the pain of self-worthlessness. He drinks to dull the pain of a deep scar in his heart. He was groomed and sexually abused when he was 4 years old by a male family member he loved, trusted, and respected. He grew up confused about his sexuality, confused about love and sex, and angry after realizing in his teens that he was actually abused. Drinking since his teenage years is how he coped with the trauma.
What would his life be like if he had not suffered abuse? What would his life be like if he had learned positive ways of overcoming the trauma? What would he be like if he were healed?
We want to safeguard children from harm. We want to find alternative ways of healing to help those who suffered childhood traumas. Please join us in mending broken minds and broken hearts.
Update: In mid-February 2021, the man in the above story passed away of a heart attack while helping friends move to a new house. He will remain an inspiration for voicing the impact of sexual abuse on children.
Sexual abuse has LIFELONG EFFECTS on exploited children.
Being sexually abused as a child will impact deeply with long-term effects. Some abused children are severely damaged, both physically and emotionally; others recuperate without obvious dysfunctions and can go on with their lives. Many repress their experiences but risk developing social and sexual distortions. Offenders often claim to have been abused themselves to attain sympathy, but recent studies suggest that the number who were former victims is vastly exaggerated.
Sexual abuse is a private wound, seldom revealed to even the child’s closest friends and relatives. Some children who disclose the abuse to an adult they trust are met with disbelief and blame. This unloving reaction deepens their distrust in adults and intensifies their anxiety. Many sexually abused children attempt suicide to escape the pain; many succeed in ending their own lives. The abused children who don’t take their own lives may harm themselves in other ways, such as through alcohol or drug abuse.
Many children carry the scars of abuse late into adulthood. Trying to engage in a healthy adult relationship becomes a challenge, as memories of abuse surface during instances of intimacy with their partners. Some victims develop an aversion to sexual contact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some victims confuse sex with love or with exchanging care.
Self-hatred or self-loathing
Sympathy and pity toward offender
Bleeding in the genital and anal area
Bruises in the genital and anal area
Itching in the genital area
Self-harm injuries (such as from suicide attempts)
Significant weight gain or loss (from appetite disturbances)
Sexual abuse of children covers a wide variety of activities, from the seemingly innocent to the blatantly obvious and damaging. Intent is the key. To be defined as sexual abuse of children, there must be an intention to create sexual arousal or gratification. This must not be confounded with normal endearments or signs of affection, which may also include body contact as in hugging and cuddling. Child pornography is evidence of a sexual crime committed to a child, why consumption of child pornography for sexual gratification is equal to abuse.
Inappropriately touching the child with sexual intention (such as groping and fondling)
Having the child masturbate another person
Sexually penetrating the child (inserting objects into a child’s vagina or anus or inserting a sexual device into a child’s mouth)
Raping the child (vaginal sex, anal sex and oral sex)
Using the child as a pornographic object (such as taking pictures and videos of sexual activities with children)
Performing sexual activities (masturbation or sex with another person) in front of the child
Exhibitionism (such as showing one’s erect penis to a child)
Using the child as a pornographic object (such as taking pictures of children in swimsuits for sexual arousal)
Talking to a child using sexual innuendoes
Engaging the child in sexual conversations
Persuading the child to participate in sexual interaction and erotic play
Showing the child pornographic materials depicting acts of sexual intercourse by other children or adults
Child sexual abuse material:
Intentionally viewing or downloading sexualized images of children for sexual gratification
Intentionally downloading sexualized stories involving children for sexual gratification
By Snow White O. Smelser, UNODC, for the April 2015 issue of Forbes Thailand Magazine
Children should be viewed as a country’s most valuable resource, so when they are abused and exploited, the annual economic costs to a country can be quite phenomenal. Even if there were no economic costs, children should still be protected from abuse. In 2014, a UNICEF study estimated that the costs to economies in East Asia and the Pacific were as high as USD$ 205.5 billion. Sexual abuse of children alone cost $39.2 million dollars.
Abused children become a nation’s liability because these same children end up consuming resources for treatment and rehabilitation. Abuse also stunts a child’s creativity and their ability to contribute productively to society, therefore not helping their nation’s GDP reach its fuller potential when they reach adulthood. Some victims repeat the cycle of abuse.
Cost of Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a deeply-embedded private wound, seldom revealed to even the child’s closest friends and relatives. Many of the children who disclose the abuse are met with disbelief and lack of understanding. These children are further traumatized with accusations of lying about the abuse or being the instigator of the abuse.
The life-long impact of sexual abuse not only inhibits a child’s psycho-emotional development, but also affects their educational achievements and their productivity. Child victims of sexual abuse also have difficulty concentrating in school and achieving their full academic potential, in turn resulting in limited opportunities to earn well-paying jobs. A lack of emphasis on self-improvement, poor academic performance and poor job performance result in losses to a child’s real contribution to society when they become adults.
Saving Livelihoods, Saving Money
Researchers have found that the most effective way to estimate the global costs of physical, psychological and sexual violence against children is to calculate the productivity loss of a country. With Thailand’s GDP standing at USD$ 387.25 billion in 2014, the productivity loss in the same year due to violence against children is estimated at USD$ 30.98 billion (8% of Thailand’s GDP). As the annual GDP continues to increase, so will the economic costs of violence against children. If Thailand invests in programs to protect children, we can save money that would otherwise be lost in treatment and rehabilitation costs.
Collaborating with Key Partners
The prevalence of sexual abuse in Thailand is widespread and no single agency alone can take on the challenge of addressing the impact of abuse. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security is addressing several social issues such as human trafficking and elderly welfare, and appear to be already stretched to capacity in providing support and care to victims.
In 2013, the Ministry of Public Health reported that over 19,000 children in Thailand were treated at public hospitals as a result of abuse, with 70% of these children treated for sexual abuse. This figure is a conservative estimate and represents a small percentage of victims presented for medical intervention to hospitals. Even fewer reported their abuse to police.
Thailand in Action
An emerging trend in the ASEAN region is the live-streaming of child sexual abuse images which is viewed daily by hundreds of thousands of predators around the world. To be able to produce such material, a child would be sexually exploited and/or abused whilst being photographed or filmed by a sex offender or their co-conspirator.
Many child sex offenders possess, produce, distribute, purchase, and view child sexual abuse material. Offenders collect, sell and trade such material, and use it as a ‘currency’ to obtain entry into private online and offline communities made up of people who are aroused by sexual activities with children. The demand for child sexual abuse material means that offenders are constantly looking for opportunities to produce new material, meaning that more sexual activities with children will take place.
Offenders also use child sexual abuse material (formerly known as “child pornography”, also known as “child abuse material” and “child exploitation images”) to groom other children into believing that sexual activities between children and adults are normal and acceptable. Besides it being a tool for grooming victims, child sexual abuse material is concrete evidence that a crime has been committed against a child and should therefore be considered a crime scene by law enforcement officials.
Approximately ten years ago, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security proposed a bill called “Materials Inciting Dangerous Behavior Act”, which attempted to directly criminalize child sexual abuse material. It was an ambitious bill that attempted to address several issues and it relegated the issue of child sexual abuse material to a less serious offence. To disrupt the marketing chain benefiting from the abuse of children, legislation needs to be available for law enforcement agencies to intercept, arrest and prosecute offenders.
In 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific recommended that the Thai Government address the issue of child sexual abuse material within its legislative framework and made the following recommendations: That Ministry of Justice…
develop a specific and comprehensive child sexual abuse material offence with robust penalties, including criminalization of the possession and the production of child pornography, whether or not the possession or production is for trade, distribution, or public use
ensure that child sexual abuse material offences can be interpreted to cover a wide range of material and adapt to new technologies
In February 2015, the National Legislative Assembly proposed its first bill to the Thai Government for consideration. The bill – supported by Protection of Children’s Rights Foundation Thailand – recommended a definition of child sexual abuse material that met with the recommendation made by UNODC but also one that went beyond the scope required by the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The bill also prescribed punishment of up to 5 years of imprisonment for simple possession of child sexual abuse material and up to 7 years for trade and distribution of child sexual abuse material.
The criminalization of the possession of child sexual abuse material means that the production of new material by offenders through the abuse of more children will be against the law in Thailand. If this law can be effectively implemented, children in Thailand can continue to remain an asset, contribute positively to the growth of the nation and not become a liability.
What You Can Do
Help ensure a healthier, more productive future for children and for Thailand by:
Encouraging the government to invest in long-term child protection programs
Exploring opportunities with your company to invest resources on child protection initiatives
Learning what opportunities exist to work with other agencies and
Signing the petition at http://www.change.org/childabuse to support the amendment of Thai law to include possession of child sexual abuse material as a specific offense.
In December 2015, the Thai National Legislative Assembly passed the bill criminalizing the possession of child sexual abuse material nearly unanimously, with 193 of 196 members voting in favor of the law.