A decade ago it was considered the underside of child abuse. Professionals in the field quietly talked about it, lamented it, and predicted an increase in illicit activity. Responsible news organizations reported it cautiously, if at all. Television, for the most part, avoided it. And virtually the only books to discuss it were by feminists.
Today reports of sexual abuse of children blare forth from the news media. Congressional committees are trying to get a handle on it. State legislators are busy framing laws to curb it. The spotlight is on courtrooms in which sex-abuse cases are on trial. Television dramas depict it. Public forums are addressing it.
Previously taboo words like incest, sodomy, and pedophilia have crept into the lay vocabulary.
The numbers are eye-popping - but difficult to verify. About 200,000 cases of child abuse are reported in the United States each year. Many more that don't come to the attention of authorities are thought to exist. Some situations involve molestation -- ranging from ''touching'' of a youngster by an adult to sexual relations. The abusers range from fathers and uncles and family friends to strangers and even to those who deal in children's services. Some experts say , however, that in most instances the offender is someone the child knows and trusts.
The issue triggers emotion and anger and sometimes a desire for retaliation. For instance, a California day-care center where workers have been indicted for allegedly terrorizing and sexually abusing children was set on fire, and threatening notes were left there.
Suggested punishments for those convicted of sexual child abuse range from rehabilitation on the one hand to the death penalty, chemical castration, or long imprisonment on the other.
Much of the proposed federal legislation centers on the related issue of child pornography. Bills under consideration would make it easier to prosecute the people who produce and distribute such materials. Stiffer fines and harsher criminal penalties are being urged to replace those now in effect. In addition, one measure would require federal agencies to conduct background checks for possible criminal records among potential day-care workers. Florida uses a similar test for new teachers. Another measure would provide assistance for states to offer preventive services and shelters for child victims. Still others would require convicted molesters to undergo psychiatric treatment before they could be released on parole.
State measures under consideration range from broader-based licensing requirements for day-care centers and other facilities where children are placed , to laws requiring fingerprinting of children (for use in the event of kidnapping), to laws dealing with court procedures and penalties for failure to report suspected child abuse.
There are now an estimated 22,000 licensed day-care centers in the US. Possibly 10 times that number are unlicensed, and the care comes from relatives, neighbors, or friends.
Soon all states but Nebraska and the District of Columbia will allow the conviction of a child-molester solely on the testimony of the victim. New York's recently signed law goes into effect Nov. 1.
States vary in their rules regarding children as witnesses. Many don't require in-person courtroom appearances, but interview youngsters on videotape. Some leave it to a judge to decide whether a child's testimony is credible. Social workers generally insist that children don't fantasize about abuse. But there have been reports of some who have made false charges against adults out of spite. Other observers say that very young children are apt to become confused about events and those involved in them and innocently give wrong information.
Controversy continues to swirl around the issue of television cameras in the courts, especially in trials involving sexual abuse of children. Recently a California judge ordered Cable News Network to shut off its cameras in a highly publicized case. CNN's coverage of a Massachusetts rape trial, in which (unlike other news organizations) it revealed the identity of the plaintiff, has been the subject of widespread debate.
The new spotlight on sexual abuse has revealed groups that actually advocate legalization of relations between adults and children. Groups like the Boston-based North American Man-Boy Love Association and California's Sexuality Circle of San Diego and Rene Guyon Society have long been under surveillance for this type of activity.
Why the sudden increase in sexual molestation of children? Congressional hearings and other public conclaves have elicited testimony that indicates the problem has long existed. In fact, it may not now be on the upswing so much as getting national attention for the first time.
Dr. Vincent J. Fontana, chairman of the New York Mayor's Task Force on Child Abuse, recently attributed some sexual abuse to pressures of the economy, joblessness, divorce, alcoholism, drugs -- and other disorienting factors in society.
At the same time, some studies are starting to attribute possible long-range harm to people who were sexually molested as children. The May issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that youngsters subjected to so-called ''sex rings'' may be affected over a period of time. Others point out that, fortunately, children tend to be resilient -- and that a loving, nurturing home environment can heal the wounds.