A voice for young victims of sexual abuse
Improving services for vulnerable children and youth across Canada
Date published: 2022-11-17 1:45:00 PM
Members of the SPARX Project team (Hébert at far right). The project promotes positive romantic and intimate relationships, and best practices to prevent dating violence among high school students.
Photo: Valérie Théorêt
The #MeToo movement has given victims of sexual assault the courage to speak out. And yet, despite society’s duty to protect its most vulnerable members, young victims are rarely given a public voice.
Child victims of sexual assault, particularly preschool-aged victims, tend to be underrepresented compared to adult victims in the research examining the impact of their traumatic experiences.
For more than 30 years, Martine Hébert, professor in the Department of Sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal and Canada Research Chair in Interpersonal Traumas and Resilience, has been giving young victims a voice by documenting the impact of sexual assault on children and youth.
A wound that can leave deep scars
“Sexual abuse is an unconscionable social evil that affects 20% to 25% of girls and 7% to 10% of boys under 18 years old,” says Hébert. Quebec data shows that 13% of victims are younger than five years old. “Being sexually abused at such a young age tends to have many far-reaching, negative consequences,” she notes.
Youth who were sexually abused in childhood are at greater risk of developing serious behavioural problems and are more likely to live in a constant state of anxiety and hypervigilance. These young victims are often unable to regulate their emotions or form healthy attachments to others. They may also have poorer social skills and have to deal with issues that disrupt their schooling.
Victims may also experience social isolation and revictimization through peer bullying, cyberviolence or abusive romantic relationships as teenagers.
The laboratory research led by Hébert focuses on the protective factors that may be at play at the individual, family, social and community levels to reduce the impact of victimization and prevent revictimization.
“We’ve noticed that some kids seemed better equipped than others to cope with the aftermath of their sexual abuse,” says Hébert. “One child out of three seems to show positive adaptation despite experiencing adversity, like a flower that manages to find the light it needs to blossom.”
Children who develop effective coping strategies and have good emotional regulation skills, secure parental attachments and access to support immediately after the abuse occurs are more likely to be able to overcome the trauma.
Hébert’s team and her partners use these research findings to develop and implement programs aimed at preventing sexual violence, reducing the negative consequences of sexual abuse, fostering resilience in young people and promoting their healthy development.
Programs for and by young people
The Lantern Program, developed by the Marie-Vincent Foundation and assessed by Hébert and her team, helps prevent sexual violence in early childhood. The program is aimed at preschool-aged children and the adults in their lives.
The Youths’ Romantic Relationships (YRR) Survey, led by Hébert and her team, is intended for older youth. Nearly 8,200 teens aged 14 to 18 participated in the study. The data found that youth who were sexually abused in childhood were particularly at risk of experiencing violence in their romantic relationships as teens. The YRR project led to more than 60 publications in peer-reviewed journals, and the survey was replicated in France, Italy, Haiti and Brazil. Its findings were used to develop awareness tools for youth and for teachers and professionals who work with teens, to help them promote healthy romantic relationships.
The YRR survey led to the creation of the SPARX Project, developed by Hébert’s lab in partnership with Tel-Jeunes and Montréal’s regional public health department, the Direction régionale de santé publique de Montréal. The program promotes positive romantic and intimate relationships—ones that recognize cultural, sexual and gender diversity—with the goal of preventing dating violence among youth. In 2021, 300 in-class workshops were provided to 3,000 Grade 9 and 10 students in the Greater Montréal area and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. The program also includes youth ambassador committees, videos for parents and online training for school staff, who credited the training with better equipping them to address dating violence.
Hébert’s research achievements have contributed to preventing sexual violence against children and building a society where young people can thrive in a safe, healthy environment.