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Frequently asked questions
What is Sexual Abuse?
Our research and experience tells us that people often get confused about what is and what isn’t sexual abuse and exploitation, especially where boys are concerned. In one sense sexual abuse can be described as: Any sexual act in which one partner is not free to refuse. In order to guide our work at First Step, we use the following definition for child sexual abuse, which is a little more descriptive:
Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse. It is defined as the use of a child for sexual purposes in exchange for cash or in-kind favours. This may include shelter, food, drugs, transportation, and more. The identity of the exploiter is not limited to, but may include family members (including other children), customers, and intermediaries or agents who benefit. Sexual exploitation can include but is not limited to the sexual activities outlined above.
Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to:
- Exposing a child to adult sexual activity or pornographic materials; (e.g. having sex in front of a child, masturbating in front of a child, making or allowing them to watch pornographic films)
- Placing the child’s hand on another person’s genitals or sexual parts of their body or anus, or touching a child’s genitals, sexual parts or anus.
- Sexual kissing and oral sex.
- Penetration, including by the penis, fingers or any object, of the vagina, mouth or anus.
- Making sexual or rude comments about the child’s body; (e.g. telling a child you think they are sexy and describing what you would like to do to them in a sexual way; asking boys how big their penis is.)
- Having children pose, undress or perform in a sexual manner—either for the purpose of taking photographs or film, or in person.
- Voyeurism—spying on children for sexual gratification. (e.g watching a child undress or take a shower for sexual pleasure)
Many children may not identify themselves as victims of abuse or exploitation for a variety of reasons, including sophisticated “grooming techniques” and use of bribes that are designed to confuse them about the reality of what is happening. Sexual abuse is often therefore disguised as love, caring or friendship.
- Quite often children who are sexually abused or exploited are described as “selling sex”, “sex workers” or “prostitutes”. This can dilute the perceptions of such abuse as harmful and obscures the criminality of the exploiter or abuser, encouraging the view that such transactions are consenting on the part of the child.
- An abuser of any child, may be an adult or another young person and can also be male or female. People often find it hard to believe that females can be abusers but it does happen. Abusers may be foreign but in most cases, are Cambodian. The First Step training curriculum and workshops explore these issues in more detail.
Impact and effects of Sexual abuse
The sexual abuse of any child has the potential to impact upon any part of their identity and turn their life upside down. Effects may be physical, psychological and emotional and often influence a person’s behavior in a way that may lead them to be judged or criticised by others. Not all effects are easy to observe or understand.
Many survivors try to hide the way they feel as they are concerned about how people will respond. Some effects can exist for a short period of time whilst others may endure for years. The important thing for parents, carers and supporters to do is to keep an open mind to the possibilities, not judge victims or survivors for the way that abuse makes them feel and act: to try find appropriate ways to help and support them.
Cambodian research (and that carried out in other countries in relation to effects) shows many similarities in how boys and men are affected. Based on our research, some of the most common effects are listed below but it is important to remember that each person is unique and through building safe and trusting relationships, we can find out more about them as an individual and help them recover.
Hold On To Hope!
It is also very important to remember that despite some of the effects of abuse listed below, survivors of abuse are also very creative and courageous, they have many strengths and the capacity to heal. Often they just need the safe spaces, the right person and opportunities to do that.
Some common effects on a child affected by sexual abuse include:
- Feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth
- Difficulty trusting others
- Loss of childhood, including the opportunity to play and learn
- Loss of the opportunity for normal growth and development
- Problems with intimacy
- Loss of control over his body
- Loss of normal loving and nurturing relationships
- Loss of safety and security
Some of the physical and behavioral effects boys and men may experience:
- Anal and penile injuries
- A range of health problems
- Confusion about sex and gender identity
- Confusion about safe and unsafe situations, people and places
- Increased vulnerability to sexual and other forms of abuse
- Suicidal thoughts and acts
- Self harming behavior (e.g. cutting the skin)
- Use of drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy
- Risk taking behaviors are common in boys (e.g. stealing, fire starting, drug use)
- Bed wetting or soiling
- Learning and school problems
- Clinging and smothering behaviour
- Insecurity, which put the child at risk for further abuse and exploitation
- Psychosomatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches
- Precocious and/or harmful sexual activity - a young child knows more than they should about sexual activity and may exhibit seductive or harmful sexual behaviour
- Behavior problems and difficulties expressing and/or controlling emotions
- Relationship difficulties
- Aggression, bullying of others and anti social behavior
- Problems concentrating on school or work
- Depression and anxiety
- Fear of normal activities (such as taking a shower, going to the toilet)
- Running away from home
- Problems eating and sleeping
- Feelings of isolation and loneliness
- In adulthood, sexual dysfunction - avoidance of, or phobic reactions to sexual intimacy.
- Dissociation - a child's existence is dependent on his/her ability to separate from the pain, which, in the most serious cases, can result in multiple personalities
- PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect sexually abused children and adult survivors of child abuse. Symptoms experienced are similar to those experienced by Vietnam veterans and may include sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, which negatively impact on their daily psychosocial functioning and for which many seek professional help.
- Becoming trapped in unhealthy and sexually exploited situations
- Sexual abuse effects on the child or youth are connected to their life before, during and after the sexual contact and often continue long after the abuse stops.
The responses of other people are often unhelpful
Many of the boys and young men explain that the way they are treated by others – parents, carers, friends, and authority figures etc. also has the capacity to affect them in a negative way and add to their problems. As some of the boys described:
"Boys can’t cry out. If we cry, they say we are weak, but they don’t know how much hurt we have."
"Other people scold us that we are bad children, so I ran away from home. I cannot eat or sleep … I want to hide this issue and keep it a secret forever."
"We’ve never been offered help by anyone; no one believes us. I still remember how it affected my life … I thought it could never happen to boys … I used to try to tell other people but they didn’t believe me."
"The police asked about these things in a normal way—they did not think that I was ashamed … My picture was in the newspaper; they only covered my eyes a bit and the people who live near me recognised me … I escaped for a year from the place where I lived because I was so embarrassed … They did not think of me at all—the police, journalists or my neighbours."
"My mother and grandmother blamed me … My mum beat me, they cried and were afraid I would go to jail … There was lots of crying and I ran away from home …"
"Some children are so broken-hearted about the abuse that they feel like committing suicide; others may want to control or beat others or sniff glue. When boys tell their difficult issue to others, it can help them forget their sadness, but if they tell someone who tells everybody in the village, the boys may run away or commit suicide."
The unique First Step training curriculum and workshops explore these issues in much greater detail and help us understand how to help boys and young men in an appropriate way. The training also includes exploration of factors that influence the severity of effects, some comparison with females and opportunities for learners to discuss how working with boys can influence their own thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Details of our training opportunities are contained on the Learning, Education and Support page of this web site or you may contact our office on the telephone number and email address provided.
What is Sexually Harmful Behavior?
A child may display sexually harmful behaviors (SHB).
What to do if a child discloses sexual abuse?
When a child speaks of their suffering, he or she is often more disturbed by the reaction of the person they are disclosing to than his or her existing wounds. The first response to a child disclosing abuse can often make a significant difference – get it wrong and the child may never talk about this for a very long time.
Research shows that many children often wait for up to twenty years before telling anyone about what happened. In Cambodia, up to 40% of girls and less than 6% of boys seek help after sexual abuse. Some of the reasons for this are that they are not sure who it is safe to tell, and/or because they feel deeply ashamed. Many boys and men also know that they will not be believed, or may be mocked, judged or accused of being homosexual. Boys and men experiencing abuse have little to gain from speaking out and so remain silent. We can change this by learning how to respond sensitively to the needs of any victim or survivor of sexual abuse.
How to help a survivor to take that important first step to recovery
- Listen: you don’t need to give advice or press the child for extra details – this can be unhelpful. Allow the child to express its emotions and explain in its own time.
Believe: telling you his/her story shows that the child places great trust in you – so don’t question the truth about what the child says. Do not suggest it is not possible or tell the child this is a “normal’’ thing and therefore not serious. Let the child know you believe its story and take it seriously.
Respect the child's choices and don’t make him/her do things – even if you think you know best!
Encourage the child to access support from safe people who might be helpful. Ask the child what it needs right now but avoid forcing it to do things.
Support the child by offering practical assistance like your company, help with transport, contacting organizations, medical services, accommodation and meals
Safety – if there is an immediate risk to his/her safety, ask the child what he/she needs right now to make him/her feel safe and try to help him/her achieve that
Confidentiality – it is vital that you respect the child's right to confidentiality and not tell other people who do not need to know. If the child needs protecting under Child Protection Policies and legislation you may need to contact someone safe from an NGO or other organisation to help. Always clearly explain what you are doing and why you are doing it – help the child to feel part of the process.
Keep calm – listening to distressing stories can make us feel a range of strong emotions but be unhelpful to the child – so be aware of your own feelings.
Arrange follow up – make plans to meet or talk again as soon as you can. Reassure the child that it is not alone and that help is available from people that believe and care.
Look after yourself – neither of you need to face this alone, there are people who can support you both. Call our office and talk confidentially to a member of our team or make an appointment to visit and find out more.
Learn more about how to help: if you are a professional working with/for children, the unique First Step training curriculum and workshops explore what to do (and not do), how to help and other important skills and responses in greater depth.
Beliefs and facts about boys and sexual abuse in Cambodia
If we want to help boys and young men who have been abused, an important first step is to explore our own ideas and beliefs.
Popular social and cultural views about men, boys and masculinity, children and sexual relationships strongly influence the seriousness with which people consider sexual abuse of boys, often in an unhelpful way.
Many beliefs lead to discrimination which can make boys feel isolated and keep them silent. Adults and others in positions of power, including parents, carers and helpers often tell us they are confused about beliefs and the facts and that this makes it harder to help. Boys and young men may also be confused about the truth.
Therefore it is very important to share accurate information that can lead to positive change. Some of the most common and unhelpful beliefs and myths are described below – alongside important and accurate information.
For any male who has been sexually abused, becoming free of these myths and beliefs is an essential part of the recovery process.
“Sexual Abuse Of Boys Does Not Happen Much”
Fact: It is far more common than we care to think. Research in Cambodia and other places in the world suggest that at least one in six boys and men will have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lives (16.5%). It may even be higher. Research (2013) carried out by UNDP and Partners for Protection (P4P) in Cambodia, shows that 16% of men in Cambodia report being sexually abused at some point in their lives. We can no longer say that it is a rare occurrence.
In Cambodia this means that over a million men and boys have been abused at some time in their life. Most of them never tell anyone about it and do not receive the help they need. This has serious implications in both the short and long term.
“Children Lie A Lot About Being Sexually Abused”
Fact: This is not true. We often forget that secrecy has a defensive and protective function… Most children are in fact too terrified, scared and ashamed to tell about what happened and keep it a secret – often for a very long time. It is vitally important we believe children when they tell us about abuse.
There are many understandable reasons that children may not talk or tell everything about what happened.
Some children may be frightened to tell the truth as the abuser may have threatened them or their family. The child may also feel responsible, confused or worried that they may be blamed and therefore not talk or share all of the details. Others may not tell the truth because they may feel they have to protect the abuser or their family. Abusers often ‘groom’ children and those around them to make them confused about what is ‘ok’ or ‘not ok’ and disguise sexual abuse as love and friendship. Grooming is designed to maintain the silence, and protect the abuser from discovery.
Many boys don’t talk or find it hard to tell everything because they know they have little to gain from making it public– boys are expected to be strong and tough and be able to protect themselves but they fear they will not be believed, mocked, punished, or accused of being gay.
Not telling the whole truth, or failing to remember everything, or finding it hard to tell does not mean a child is lying. It is very common for victims of all forms of abuse not to remember all the facts, ‘block out’ things in order to survive or be confused about what happened. This is to be expected and normal.
“It Is Mostly Foreigners That Abuse Boys – It’s Not Part Of Cambodian Culture”
Facts: This is false. Of course some people who abuse boys are foreigners who may travel here to abuse Cambodian boys and girls - we read about these cases in the newspapers and this is a very serious problem.
However, the reality is that abusers can be anyone – including parents, family members, friends, neighbours and other people known to the boy and in positions trust. This includes women and other young people. The fact is that Cambodians are responsible for most abuse of children in this country, not foreigners.
This is important to understand when considering how we can prevent abuse and protect boys from all people that may abuse them, and is discussed in detail in the training and workshops provided by First Step.
“It Is Not So Serious When A Boy Is Abused – He Can Recover Quickly”
Facts: Cambodian cultural and social views about boys being strong and tough and not having virginity and reputation to lose, lead many to believe that this is true - but it is false. The belief that boys are ‘pure gold’ (and do not lose value if they have sex or are abused) is not helpful at all.
Boys are also human beings and can be hurt physically and emotionally like anyone else. They also feel pain and shame - this should be understood if we want to help them. Sexual abuse is always serious and can impact upon all parts of a person’s life in the short and long term. This is an important issue which our training explores in depth – leading to a greater understanding about how to help boys recover.
“Women Can Not Abuse Boys And Even If They Do, It Is Not Harmful”
Fact: False – some women can and do sexually abuse children. You do not need to be a man or have a penis to sexually abuse a child.
Any sexual abuse is harmful. Many boys and other people might think that having sex or being abused by a woman makes the boy “lucky”. There is nothing lucky about being abused – whoever the abuser. The First Step training explores this issue in more detail.
“Only Poor, Homeless And, Or Uneducated Boys Are Abused”
Fact: Any boy or man can be abused – rich or poor, educated or not and from any walk of life. Sexual abuse knows no boundaries. Just because we do not hear about it much does not mean it does not happen.
“If A Boy Has An Erection When Abused, It Proves He Wanted It”
Fact: This is false. Having an erection does not mean a boy wanted to be abused at all – it is very common for abusers to make a victim aroused and ejaculate - they know that this can be very confusing for boys and makes it more likely they will not tell anyone.
It is a fact that it is very easy and common for boys and men to get erections – sometimes through fear, or when having medical examinations and other times that are also not related to sex. Having an erection during abuse does not mean he wanted it or consented. Some times boys may feel that they enjoy the physical part of what happens when they ejaculate and this can be very confusing and upsetting.
“It’s Easy For Boys To Talk About Sexual Abuse – They Are Not Shy Like Girls”
Fact: False – our research shows that most boys feel great shame and try and hide what happened to them. Most never talk about what happened to them – often because they know that they will not be believed or mocked or worry that they will be blamed and punished.
Sometimes boys may joke about the abuse and act as if they don’t care about it. This can be confusing to people around them – others may think the boy is not harmed at all - and as a result they may not offer help or listen. Acting like this is a common way for a boy or man to cover up their true feelings.
What we do know is that many boys and young men often feel that they have to act tough or deny the seriousness of abuse as a way of coping with their distress. Boys learn that showing feelings, emotions or crying is considered a sign of weakness by others, so they try very hard to hide the way they feel. This is not helpful for them at all and keeps them trapped in fear and silence.
“If A Boy Receives Money It Is Not Abuse Or Harmful”
Fact: False – many abusers use ‘grooming’ techniques such as giving money and gifts as a way of attracting boys but also as a method of keeping them quiet during and after the abuse. Abusers also exploit poverty and lack of awareness to ‘trap’ boys in a cycle where they are continually abused in exchange for money or other gifts.
The specialist First Step training helps participants understand more about how abuse happens, what is called the ‘cycle’ of abuse, the many grooming techniques used by abusers in Cambodia and importantly, how a deeper understanding of these can help us protect all children from sexual abuse.
“Gay Men Are Responsible For The Abuse Of Boys”
Fact: Not true. Cambodian and international research shows us that abusers can be anyone – men or women, other children and young people. Most abusers are not gay men at all.
For any male who has been sexually abused, becoming free of these myths and beliefs is an essential part of the recovery process.