In 2011, The Huff Post reported on the death of Bill Zeller – a twenty-seven-year-old computer programmer attending Princeton University. He was known for creating numerous applications, such as MyTunes, and was labeled by everyone as brilliant. In 2011, Bill Zeller committed suicide. In his 4,000 word note, he explained why.
“My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, at times intensified and overwhelmed me.”
Bill described how his assault affected his social interactions, sleep patterns, romantic relationships, sense of self-worth, and mental health. While most survivors of child sexual assault do not choose suicide, many resonate with the internal struggles that Bill described. He felt hopeless. He felt unlovable. He felt alone.
RAINN defines child sexual abuse as “sexual activity with a minor.” Under United States law, a child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity. The abuse may take the form of fondling, sex of any kind, obscene text messages, trafficking, masturbation in the presence of a minor, and “any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional, or physical welfare.”
Adult retrospect studies show that one in every four women and one in every six men experience sexual abuse before they turn eighteen. In the U.S. this year, 500,000 babies will be born who will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18 – if we do nothing to prevent it (cahouston.org).
A common misconception is that child abusers are pedophiles waiting on street corners to kidnap children. We are taught to fear dark alleyways and men alone at the park. However, the usual danger lies much closer. About thirty percent of abusers are family members and sixty percent are non-related individuals such as friends, babysitters, or neighbors (ptsd.va.gov). In only ten percent of sexual abuse cases is the abuser a stranger (ptsd.va.gov). Additionally, the abuse does not typically happen on a street corner; most instances of sexual assault occur in a residence, typically of either the child or the abuser.
Yet, the abuser being known by the child does not make them any less nefarious or manipulative. Perpetrators have reported that they seek out “passive, quiet, troubled, lonely children” and are known to establish trusting relationships with the victim’s family. In order to gain further trust, abusers will often make inappropriate comments and increasingly inappropriate touches towards the child (sciencedirect.com). They often will use their position of power to coerce the child, telling them that the abuse is normal or that they enjoyed it. If the child refuses or plans to speak up, the abuser may make violent or physical threats.
The horror of child sexual abuse cannot be described through any list of facts and the justice these survivors deserve will not be resolved through any article written about it. Yet, my hope is that, by understanding how this abuse happens, the effects that it has, and the warning signs in children, each of us will be better protectors of God’s children and prevent child sexual abuse in our generation.
Towards the end of his note, Bill Zeller wrote: “I often wonder what life must be like for other people. People who can feel the love from others and give it back unadulterated, people who can experience sex as an intimate and joyous experience, people who can experience the colors and happenings of this world without constant misery.”
Children who are sexually abused are at significantly higher risk for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts (Broman-Fulks, J., Kilpatrick, D., Saunders, B., Leeb, R.) Adult women who were abused as a child are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression. Among male survivors, more than seventy percent seek treatment for substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide. One of the most common consequences of child sexual assault is substance abuse. Numerous studies have shown that those with this history demonstrate a three to fourfold increase in substance abuse (Hulme, P., Kilpatrick, D. Acierno, R.). Effects include an increased likelihood for crime, lower cognitive ability, academic achievement, and memory abilities. Below is a chart that lays out some of the increased risks that survivors of child assault experience.
Darkness to Light, a prevention organization, wrote that “Child sexual abuse has lasting consequences for victims. The real tragedy is that it robs children of their potential, setting into motion a chain of events and decisions that affect them throughout their lives.” This crime is not only a stain on our society, but a devastating act that can leave people feeling hopeless, unlovable, and alone. We must ask ourselves the question: What can be done to prevent child sexual assault?
While there is no one agreed-upon solution, advocates emphasize the responsibility of adults. As college students, we are now adults. Most of us likely are not yet parents, but we may assist in children’s ministry at our church, babysit kids, have nieces and nephews, and eventually may have children of our own. It is still our responsibility to be educated, aware, and active to prevent this crime from occurring.
The first step is understanding. Thankfully, there are a multitude of resources available including RAIIN, Darkness to Light, The Children’s Assessment Center, and others. Without understanding the issue, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to address it. Additionally, we can minimize the risk of abuse by restricting the amount of time that children are able to be alone with other adults in a one-on-one setting. Furthermore, there are various signs in children that can indicate they are or have experienced sexual abuse. These include depression, anxiety, anger, loss of appetite, self-harm, withdrawal from normal activities, bed-wetting, nightmares, and inappropriate sexual activity. While talking to parents and raising the issue of abuse is uncomfortable, doing so could save that child’s life. We have to remember that this happens to one in every four girls and one in every six boys. There is a significant chance that what you are noticing is not a coincidence.
In Bill Zeller’s suicide note, he spoke frequently of a darkness that he felt followed him around––never allowing him to live a normal life. Child sexual assault is unique because survivors always carry it with them, from development to old age. Yet, I am confident that while the feeling of hopelessness may be overwhelming, hope is still to be found. I am reminded of John 1:5 in which the apostle writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” While sin and depravity rule this world, justice, and peace are still to be found. Jesus’s death and resurrection come with this very promise. Survivors of child sexual assault can go on to live beautiful, influential, and happy lives. They can heal from the pain and view it as something that has not broken or scarred them but made them stronger.
Child sexual assault has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. 500,000 children born this year will be sexually assaulted by the time they turn 18. That statistic will remain the same unless we do something to change it. By becoming more educated, more aware, and more involved with the children in our lives, we can see improvements, and any amount of improvement in this area is victory. Our responsibility as sisters, brothers, parents, friends, and Christians is to shield and protect God’s little children. I ask that we all be a part of this mission and make it a victory of our generation.
On-campus there is a community of students ready to welcome you with open arms, and there are numerous resources available on and off-campus if you so need:
- National Sexual Assault Line (24-hour, free, immediate): 1-800-656-4673
- Healing Abuse Working for Change (24-hour confidential hotline, short-term counseling): 1-800-547-1649
- YWCA North Shore Rape Crisis Center (24-hour hotline, resources and support): 1-800-922-8772
- Gordon College Counseling Center: https://www.gordon.edu/counselingcenter/services
- The Counseling Center Has a List of Various Categories of Counseling and Help: https://www.gordon.edu/counselingcenter/selfhelp