Historical Account of Child Abuse

Although many of us believe that sex with a child has always been considered a societal taboo, sexual exploitation of children can be traced throughout history. Legal, cultural, and religious laws and mores have found ways to normalize, legitimize, justify, and even glorify incest and other acts of childhood sexual abuse.’

Child-abuse laws and reporting responsibilities for people working with children are a very recent phenomenon. As late as the 1860s, children were still considered to be the “property” of their guardians. As such, children had little protection from mistreatment. At that time, the case of a girl being severely abused by her adoptive guardians was brought to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The S.P.C.A. brought the case before the court. They based their argument on the premise that a child was a member of the animal kingdom, and that since animals were afforded protection under the law, children, too, were therefore entitled to the same degree of protection from cruelty as animals.

They won their case, and were able to remove the child from the home and place her in protective custody.ii

This case made for dramatic changes in the perspective of children as having rights not to be mistreated. Societies and organizations began to be set up to provide for the safety and treatment of abused children. iii However, most people still believed that child abuse was a rare occurrence, something that only happened to other people, and certainly not something one spoke about in public. Even in psychological circles, stories of early childhood sexual-abuse were considered to be based on the child fantasy rather than reality.iv

In the 1960s and 1970s, women began to meet together to share with one another their anger and fear about the mistreatment they received, living in a male-dominated society.v As they began to talk together, they found that they had in common many of the same stories of violence and early childhood victimization.vi They rallied together to find ways to regain a sense of personal empowerment and began to speak out for the protection of basic human rights. As this women’s movement grew, and their stories and views became more publicly known, men, too, began to share their own childhood-abuse histories. We, as a society, began to be confronted by the vast numbers of adults who had suffered at the hands of family members, friends, and trusted adults in the community. The connection began to be made that the emotional effects of childhood trauma had far-reaching results and that a history of abuse was a common factor in much of our criminal population.vii

The protection of children became a national priority. By 1974 our national consciousness had been so raised that Congress passed The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. This helped to create the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, whose work it became to study and create methods of treatment and prevention of child abuse.viii

It is important for those of us working with children to remember that we are in the forefront of this new field―a field that often finds itself up against a rock and a hard place. Although these new organizations and laws are now in effect, people who work for the protection of children’s rights are working with people―people who have rich and varied histories of cultural, religious, societal, political, sexual, and economic beliefs and lifestyles. People who have generational ideas and experiences about family. We also are this “people,” so it is important for us to not only be informed about child abuse and how it may come up in our work in the community, but to also observe our own feelings and reactions to this very important topic.


i Anne L Horton and Judith A Williamson, eds. Abuse and Religion: When Praying Isn’t Enough (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988); Florence Rush. The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980).

ii Jill Duerr Berrick and Neil Gilbert. With the Best of Intentions: The Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Movement (New York: Guilford Press, 1991).

iii Berrick and Gilbert. With the Best of Intentions

iv E. Sue Blume. Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990).

v Berrick and Gilbert. With the Best of Intentions

vi Florence Rush. The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980).

vii Berrick and Gilbert. With the Best of Intentions; Rush. The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children

viii Berrick and Gilbert. With the Best of Intentions

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Independent Mental Health Care Professional

Emily Sears Vaughn has been a School Counselor for private middle and high school students since 1991.  She is also in private practice as a licensed Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor, working with individuals, couples, and families on issues of resolving past trauma, forming strong and healthy relationships, and achieving personal goals that will lead toward a happier and more satisfying life. Emily is also one of the authors who contributed to And He Restoreth My Soul, walking with the sexual abuse survivors.

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