BOULDER—According to a study released Tuesday by the University of Colorado sociology department, approximately 95 percent of self-abuse cases in the U.S. go unreported.
"As shocking as it may seem, unreported incidents of self-abuse number in the billions," said Dr. Henry Cracklin, director of the study. "This isn't just the plight of teenage boys and truck drivers. Self-abuse affects both genders and all ages. Nevertheless, a great majority of victims suffer the abuse in silence."
The study's results, obtained through five years of surveys and interviews, indicate that millions of Americans have publicly acknowledged involvement in a self-abusive relationship. Yet the study finds that unreported abuse victims comprise an alarming 87 percent of the female population and 99.6 percent of males.
"In many cases, the self-abuse occurs repeatedly over the course of a lifetime, with the victims believing themselves powerless to break the cycle of shame, embarrassment, and self-loving," Cracklin said. "The sad reality is that, if you know a man or woman between the ages of 12 and 80, you know a self-abuse victim."
Just as alarming as the high incidence of abuse, Cracklin said, is the fact that it's impossible to predict where it will occur.
"Our surveys indicate that self-abuse incidents are unpredictable," Cracklin said. "They can occur at any time and in any place. Study participants were abused in their own beds, in showers, in the bathroom stalls of college dorms. It's happened in the parking lot during lunch hour, at the beach, in library basements, and even in vehicles moving along the highway at night."
Cracklin added: "It may be happening to someone you love, right at this very moment."
According to Janet Linstrom, founder of Mothers Against Self Touch-Abuse, family members and friends who suspect that a minor is being self-abused often do nothing, because they believe the child's claim that he simply enjoys being left alone.
"The self-abuse victim will often withdraw from the family. He'll forgo group activities, opting instead to spend hours locked in his bedroom, surfing the Internet," Linstrom said. "Unfortunately, I am all too aware of the danger signs. You see, both my husband and I were self-abused."
Support-group leaders like Linstrom address the problem one victim at a time.
"Many victims are reluctant to seek help," Linstrom said. "Their abusers have isolated them from friends and family, so there's no one for them to reach out to. For many, the abuser is the only intimate friend they have."
"Truth be told, victims sometimes report deriving some sort of satisfaction from the self-abuse," Linstrom said, "There's an intensity to abusive relationships that many self-abuse victims don't find elsewhere. Many will say, 'No one else makes me feel this way.'"
Added Linstrom: "That's why we focus on the younger ones. We've been working in the schools, but it's an uphill battle. We hear scores of second- and third-hand accounts of self-abuse, but it's not easy to get students to share stories of their own victimization."
In spite of the stranglehold self-abuse has on the population, few sources of help are available to victims, said Sister Joselda Hattchett, founder of St. Mary's Self-Abuse Shelter in Denver, a Catholic charity group dedicated to counseling self-abuse victims.
"As far as I'm aware, we're one of the few institutions specifically designed to handle the fallout from these attacks," Hattchett said. "Incredible as it may seem, those who are brave enough to report the self-abuse often find that their claims are not taken seriously. Some victims are even laughed at."
Hattchett said the shelter provides a self-abuse hotline, but the 900-number seems to do more harm than good.
"We placed ads in the back of men's magazines and newsweeklies," Hattchett said. "The sisters find that the majority of the victims who reach out to them are unable to escape their tormentors, even during a short phone call. We thought having non-threatening, soft-voiced women answer the phones would make it easier for victims to discuss the problem, but most callers only seem interested in the operators' fashion choices or whether they like to 'party.'"
Hattchett said the hardest part of her job is seeing self-abuse victims who were brave enough to come forward fall back into the hands of their abusers.
"It's difficult to get self-abuse victims to stop blaming themselves for what's happened," Hattchett said. "They think it's their fault, because they're too weak to resist. And, despite everything that has happened, they often maintain strong feelings for their abusers. I've seen it happen time and time again."