Understanding I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

by Joanne Megna-Wallace

Child Sexual Abuse

When asked whether any of her works have been misunderstood, Maya Angelou replied: ‘‘A number of people have asked me why I wrote about the rape in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. They wanted to know why I had to tell that rape happens in the black community’’ (Tate, 11). Indeed, this incident, which occurs in St. Louis when Maya is seven years old, is one of the most horrifying events of Angelou’s childhood. But despite those who would criticize Angelou for revealing that child sexual abuse occurs in the African American community, studies have shown that child sexual abuse ‘‘is not limited by racial, ethnic, or economic boundaries— sexual abuse of children exists in all strata of society’’ (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, i).

Angelou’s account is a sensitive and brutally honest description of the abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, which progresses from fondling to forcible rape, and of her own confusion and pain as she tries to understand what is happening to her. The young Maya is frightened into submission by her abuser, as Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey if Maya ever reveals the abuse. At the same time, however, Maya initially enjoys being held by Mr. Freeman. She writes, ‘‘From the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me’’ (61). After Mr. Freeman’s crime is discovered, Maya is forced to testify in court against him. When asked whether Mr. Freeman had ever touched her before the rape, a guilt-ridden Maya lies and answers that he had not because she is afraid that she will be ostracized by her family if they find out that she had not disclosed his earlier fondling of her. Mr. Freeman is convicted and almost immediately found murdered. Maya, believing her lie makes her responsible for Mr. Freeman’s death, decides that she must stop talking altogether so that others will not be harmed.

Angelou’s account is consistent with many of the findings in current studies of child sexual abuse. Based on his survey of 796 college students, David Finkelhor reported that at least one of every five girls had had sexual experiences with substantially older partners and that ‘‘almost half [43%] of the girls’ experiences were with family members’’ (57–58). Another 33% reported that the sexual experience occurred with an acquaintance. Angelou’s experience is consistent with Finkelhor’s contention that it is now a ‘‘well-established fact that sexual victimization occurs to a large extent within a child’s intimate social network’’ (58). In regard to the age of the victim at the time of the sexual experience, Finkelhor notes: ‘‘It is assumed that a girl’s vulnerability to sexual overtures increases as she acquires adult sexual characteristics. This assumption appears to be wrong, however…. Overall, experiences for both girls and boys cluster around the preadolescent period’’ (60). Finally, Finkelhor relates the victims’ reactions to the sexual experience, the most common being fear or shock. However,

a few (8 percent) actually remembered experiencing some pleasure as a result….Contrary to the stereotype, most victims in our study readily acknowledged the positive as well as the negative elements of their experience. They talked about the times the physical sensations felt good, or they remembered how their sexual experience with an adult or family member satisfied a longing for affection and closeness that was rarely met at any other time.

These were not expressions of adult kinds of sexual passion and longings. On the whole, they were part of a confusing flood of feelings and sensations, usually dwarfed by an overwhelming sense of helplessness, guilt, anger, or fear. In fact, the pleasure often only intensified the guilt or the helplessness, since it added to the child’s confusion and left the child feeling out of control of even his or her own emotions. (65–66)


Angelou has stated that one of the challenges she faced in writing about the rape was to avoid portraying Mr. Freeman in a completely negative way. ‘‘I wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre’’ (Tate, 11). In an interview in 1987, Angelou commented on how she has been able to forgive Mr. Freeman: ‘‘It hadtodo…with ‘seeing the man. I don’t mean physically seeing him. But trying to understand how really sick and alone that man was. I don’t mean that I condone at all. But to try to understand is always healing’’’(Angelou, Interview with Crane, 175). Despite her ability to forgive, Angelou noted in this interview that she still bears the emotional scars of the abuse.

The following document, prepared for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, helps to place Angelou’s particular experience with sexual assault in the broader context of a significant national problem. It provides a definition of child sexual abuse, discusses the extent of the problem, analyzes the dynamics, and examines the effects of sexual abuse on children and families. The document relates directly to Angelou’s case by demonstrating that sexual abuse is widespread, happens primarily to preadolescent girls, is often perpetrated by a male figure familiar to the child, and may have diverse short-term and long-term effects.


(Rockville, Md: GPO, 1981)


The sexual abuse of children has been called the ‘‘last remaining component of the maltreatment syndrome in children yet to be faced head on.’’ It encompasses a wide range of behavior from fondling and exhibitionism to forcible rape and commercial exploitation for purposes of prostitution or the production of pornographic materials. It takes many forms and involves varying degrees of violence and emotional traumatization. Sexual abuse has been defined in a variety of ways. Some of the ambiguity in terms can be attributed to the differences in legal definitions of sexual abuse which vary considerably from state to state. But the basic cause of this ambiguity is the multitude of variations in sexual acts or behaviors, in perpetrators, and in the degree of harm or effect on children.

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, as amended, defines child abuse, including sexual abuse or exploitation, in terms of injury or maltreatment of a child ‘‘…byaperson who is responsible for the child’s welfare….’’ As used in Subsection 5(3) of the amended Act, the term ‘‘sexual abuse’’ includes ‘‘the obscene or pornographic photographing, filming or depiction of children for commercial purposes, or the rape, molestation, incest, prostitution or other such forms of sexual exploitation of children under circumstances which indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby…’’

Legal definitions of child sexual abuse sometimes vary by factors in addition to what was actually done to a child: the victim’s age and relationship to the perpetrator are also taken into account in many states. Furthermore, because most child abuse reporting laws address themselves to maltreatment by parents or persons legally responsible for a child’s welfare, an act of sexual abuse committed by a person outside the family may be defined and handled quite differently from the same act committed by someone legally responsible for the child.

As with other forms of child abuse, there is generally agreement concerning the most extreme cases, but the operational definition of what specific behaviors constitute sexual abuse of children remains largely a matter of jurisdictional and individual interpretation. Many of the terms in the literature that differentiate types of child sexual abuse are used interchangeably by professionals and the public. As more has become known about this problem, even such unintentional behaviors as obscene language or accidental sexual stimulus have been discussed as possibly constituting sexual abuse.

In order to encompass all forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation within its mandate, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect has adopted the following tentative definition of child sexual abuse:

contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used for the sexual stimulation of that adult or another person. Sexual abuse may also be committed by a person under the age of 18 when that person is either significantly older than the victim or when the abuser is in a position of power or control over another child.


Scope of the Problem

How frequently does child sexual abuse occur? The true extent of the problem is unknown, since there are presently no national statistics on the actual incidence of child sexual abuse. Available statistics reflect only those cases that are officially reported to appropriate authorities and represent only a fraction of the cases that actually occur. Some researchers believe that sexual abuse is more widespread than the physical abuse of children, which is currently estimated to affect over 200,000 children a year in the U.S. A study by Weinberg, published in 1955, estimated the average yearly rate of incest to be 1.9 cases per million people. More recent estimates have been considerably higher: in 1969, Vincent DeFrancis, M.D., and the American Humane Association estimated a yearly incidence of about 40 per million. The number of cases seen at the Santa Clara County (California) Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Program suggests that the true incidence could be as high as 800 to 1,000 per million. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect currently estimates that the annual incidence of sexual abuse of children is over 100,000 cases per year.

For many researchers this incidence estimate is conservative. Authorities have offered a range of possible incidence figures, such as Schultz’s estimate of 200,000–500,000 cases a year. In a study based on retrospective interviews with females, Gagnon estimated that as many as 500,000 girls under 14 years of age are victims of sexual offense each year. Another estimate within range of these assessments is Sarafino’s projection of 336,000 actual sex offenses against boys and girls each year. In a recent survey of predominantly white, middle class college students, nearly one in five girls and one in 11 boys said they had a sexual experience with a much older person.

The variation among these estimates is primarily attributable to the methods employed in their computation. Such factors as the definition of sexual abuse utilized, the age range covered, and whether or not boys were included in the estimate are influential….

There are a number of reasons to suppose that reported cases of sexual abuse represent only the ‘‘tip of the iceberg.’’ One of these is the reluctance of many parents and family members to report such incidents to the authorities. Fear of social censure, shame, an unwillingness to subject the child and/or the parents to embarrassing questioning, and the fact that in most cases no physical harm has been done all contribute to this reluctance. Moreover, children often do not report incidents of sexual abuse to their parents. They may be afraid that their parents will blame them; they may be afraid of reprisal by the perpetrator (who may be one of their parents); or they may feel guilty over any physical pleasure they may have had from the sexual contact. In a retrospective study of 1,800 college students, almost a third of the respondents of both sexes reported that they had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse as children. Only half of the females who had such an experience reported it to their parents; only one tenth of the males did so. It is clear that the actual number of incidents of sexual abuse of children is considerably greater than the number of incidents that come to the attention of the authorities.

Dynamics of Sexual Abuse

The familiar images of ‘‘perverts,’’ ‘‘molesters,’’ and ‘‘dirty old men’’ are not accurate portraits of the majority of persons responsible for the sexual abuse of children. Studies of sexually abused children show that a large proportion of such cases involve parents or other figures familiar to the child. Of 9,000 cases of sex crimes against children reviewed by the American Humane Association in 1968, 75 percent were perpetrated by members of the victim’s household, relatives, neighbors, or acquaintances of the victim. Half the offenders in a series of 42 cases involving sexual trauma of children and adolescents were found to be family members…. [Other studies] estimate that between 20 and 30 percent of all child abuse cases are perpetrated by nonfamily members. It has also been reported that only 3 to 10 percent of the offenders were total strangers.

The circumstances, dynamics, and effects of child sexual abuse differ depending on whether the perpetrator is a stranger or someone with whom the child is closely acquainted. The behavior of the perpetrator is more likely to be an expression of a sexual preference for children in cases of assault by a stranger than is that found in incest cases, where an individual’s normal sexual preference for adults may have become thwarted, disoriented, or inappropriately directed toward a child. While aggressive sexual offenses, such as rape and sadism, do occur within the family, they are the exception rather than the rule. The majority of cases do not involve penetration, contraction of venereal disease, or infliction of serious injury. Exhibitionism and fondling by strangers, often compulsive and habitual forms of behavior, are rarely violent and may have little impact on their victims, depending upon how the situation is subsequently handled.

Sexual abuse by strangers is usually a single episode, occurs most frequently in the warm weather months, and usually occurs in a public place. In contrast, sexual abuse by family members or acquaintances is more likely to occur in the home of the victim or the perpetrator, and may occur repeatedly over a period of time.

While there are cases of sexual abuse by adult women, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. Girls are reported as abused at a much higher rate than boys (the estimated ratio ranges from twice to ten times as often), and although victims have been found to be as young as four months old, the average age appears to be between 11 and 14 years old. Recent studies indicate, however, that these estimates may be more a reflection of the cases that are reported, rather than an actual indication of the age and sex of the majority of victims. For example, the 1978–79 statistics from the Child Protection Center of Children’s Hospital National Medical Center, which treats all forms of child sexual abuse, reveal that the average age of victims is 7 years, and that 25 percent of them are males. Similarly, in a recent report by the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Attorney’sOffice which identified previously undisclosed cases of child sexual abuse, as many boys as girls in the lower elementary school age levels identified themselves as having experienced some form of sexual abuse. These and similar data from other parts of the country increasingly point to the conclusion that, in younger children, as many boys as girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation but that boys may be even more reluctant to report such incidents to adults. In addition, preliminary findings from the evaluation of NCCAN’s four large intrafamily sexual abuse demonstration treatment projects indicate that 21 percent of the children being treated for sexual abuse are under the age of 12, with at least one project showing 51 percent of its child client population as 11 years old or younger, and one-third of its population under the age of six….

There is evidence that most perpetrators of sexual abuse are heterosexual in their adult sexual orientation, even though they may abuse male children. Sarafino states that in 92 percent of the reported child sexual abuse cases the perpetrators are heterosexual. No perpetrators with a homosexual orientation were found in a study of 175 males convicted of sexual assault against children. The study suggests that the adult heterosexual male constitutes a greater risk to the underage male or female child than does the adult homosexual male (who is much less likely to have children around the house).

In cases where the perpetrator is a family friend or member, the use of physical force is rarely necessary to engage a child in sexual activity because of the child’s trusting, dependent relationship with the perpetrator. The child’s cooperation is often facilitated by the adult’s position of dominance, an offer of material goods, a threat of physical violence, or a misrepresentation of moral standards. In complying with the adult’s wishes, a child may also be attempting to fulfill needs that normally are met in other ways. For example, a child may cooperate out of a need for love, affection, attention, or from a sense of loyalty to the adult. Conversely, a need to defy a parental figure, express anger about a chaotic home life, or act out sexual conflicts may make a child vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Other reports of child sexual abuse in the family suggest an elevated incidence of violence. In a study of 44 cases of attempted and completed child sexual assault by a family member, 39 percent of the offenders were categorized as committing a sex-pressure assault while 61 percent were

categorized as committing a sex-force assault. In the sex-pressure assault the offender is an authority figure to the victim and pressures the child, who may not know that sexual activity is part of the offer. Sexual approaches by a family member are often presented to the child as instructional. Sex-force assaults, on the other hand, involve the threat of harm or physical force, rather than engaging the child in an emotional way. Intimidation and exploitation are used to gain power. In some cases this type of assault may be sadistic, where the child may be beaten, choked, or tortured, and where the intent of the perpetrator is to hurt, punish, or destroy the victim….

Effects on Children and Families

It is difficult to generalize about the effects of sexual abuse on children. Aside from the fact that there has been little research on the effects of sexual abuse, children react differently to different situations depending on a number of variables that may be operating at the time of the occurrence. In an absolute sense, the question of what effects incest has had on the child is unanswerable since there is usually no way that the effects of the sexual events can be separated from the family pathology in which they occurred.

A number of factors are believed to be of critical importance in determining the way in which a child reacts to and assimilates the experience. These factors include the child’s age and developmental status, the relationship of the abuser to the child, the amount of force or violence used by the abuser, the degree of shame or guilt evoked in the child for his or her participation, and, perhaps most importantly, the reactions of the child’s parents and those professionals who become involved in the case. Most authorities agree that, other things being equal, the psychological trauma to the child is greater when the perpetrator of the abuse is close to the child than when he is a stranger (however, in a recent study by Finkelhor the connection between the degree of trauma and the relationship between victim and perpetrator was unclear). The closer the relationship between child and perpetrator, moreover, the more likely is the sexual abuse to be repeated.

It is not difficult to understand why some incidents of sexual abuse by a stranger may be far less traumatic than those committed by someone close to the child. In most such instances, the parents will rally to the aid of the child, and, while they may overreact to the situation, their anger and feelings of retribution are generally directed toward the perpetrator. It is less likely that provocation on the part of the child will be suspected, and the child will generally receive expressions of concern, protection, and support from family and friends. The degree of violence or physical coercion used by the perpetrator is, of course, another important factor: if a child has been raped or otherwise physically harmed by an outsider, both the short- and long-term effects may be very serious.

Intrafamily sexual abuse, including that initiated by persons whom the child or other family members hold in high esteem, usually has far more complicated temporary and long-term repercussions. The public disclosure of incest may awaken feelings of guilt associated with denial and depression. If the mother has been aware of the situation, she may deny any knowledge of the matter, accusing her daughter of lying. The father’s guilt, shame, and fear of retribution also may overwhelm any concern for his daughter’s feelings. Thus, the child may be rejected by both parents, perceived as guilty, and seen as a betrayer of her family. Under these circumstances, many children retract their stories. Often, it is only after the incest is discovered that the larger family problems may surface (and vice versa).

The effects of incest also depend on the child’s age and level of emotional and intellectual development. Very young children may be less affected by an incestuous relationship than older children, because they may not have incorporated society’s concepts of right and wrong, and lack awareness of the possible repercussions. If the sexual behavior between adult and child has persisted over a long period of time, if it has involved a series of progressively more intimate incidents, or if the child is old enough to understand the cultural taboo of what has occurred, then the effects may be more profound.

Short-term effects of sexual abuse or its disclosure can take many forms. Some children react by regressing to earlier behaviors such as thumb sucking or becoming afraid of the dark; others sleep walk or develop difficulty in eating and sleeping. Sexual abuse may cause extreme anxiety which may be seen in excessive fears, enuresis, or tics. Such physical symptoms may constitute the child’s way of acting out disturbing feelings and reactions that cannot be verbalized. A frequent symptom is the lack of inhibition of sexual impulses in the victim, who may seek love through sexual contact. Often, this behavior will result in the recurrence of sexual abuse to the child victim in the foster home.

Less is known about the long-term effects of incest and sexual exploitation because much of the research is clinical, based on small numbers of cases, and retrospective. Although retrospective studies have documented a relationship between reported incest history and the development of promiscuity or prostitution, other authors decry the use of ‘‘failure to marry, or promiscuity’’ as the only accepted criterion indicating that a victim has been harmed. The fact that many women reveal their incestuous history while involved in therapy for other problems, suggests that the damage from child sexual abuse may be related to other problems for which they are seeking help. Depression and confusion about their own identities are common reactions of many victims. Some jump into early marriages as a means of escaping their family situations and dealing with their feelings of aloneness. Some report feeling ‘‘marked’’ or stigmatized for life and may have suicidal tendencies. Many victims of incest come to the attention of the courts for antisocial behavior and may go through the entire justice system without ever revealing their underlying problems. There is no doubt, therefore, that in some cases incidents of child sexual abuse influence the personality and behavior of the victim for the rest of his or her life. Possible long-term effects include the repetition of self-destructive behavior patterns, such as drug or alcohol abuse, self mutilation, and the development of symptoms such as frigidity. (1–6)


  1. 1. Define the term ‘‘sexual abuse.’’

  2. 2. Why is sexual abuse an underreported crime?

  3. 3. What is the typical profile (sex, sexual orientation, familiarity with the victim) of the perpetrator of sexual abuse?

  4. 4. What is the typical profile (age and sex) of the victim of sexual abuse?

  5. 5. Why do children sometimes cooperate with the perpetrator of sexual abuse?

  6. 6. Families respond in a variety of ways when they learn a child has been sexually abused. Explain why and give some examples of possible reponses.

  7. 7. What are some of the short-term and long-term consequences for child victims of sexual abuse?



1. What were Angelou’s objectives in writing about her experience with sexual abuse?
2. What were the short-term and long-term consequences for Angelou of the sexual abuse?
3. According to the studies cited in this chapter, in what ways was Angelou’s experience similar to and different from the experiences of others who have suffered sexual abuse?
4. How did Angelou’s family respond when they learned that she had been sexually abused? How does their response compare to the responses of other families in situations where the perpetrator was known to the family?
5. Write an essay, using supplementary materials, on ways to prevent child abuse.
6. Write and perform a dramatic sketch of a conversation between a parent and a child in which the parent prepares the child to protect himself or herself from sexual abuse.



Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 1970. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1971.
———. Interview with Tricia Crane. ‘‘Maya Angelou.’’ In Conversations with Maya Angelou. Ed. Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. 173–78.
Finkelhor, David. Sexually Victimized Children. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child Sexual Abuse: Incest, Assault and Sexual Exploitation. Rockville, Md.: GPO, 1981.


See the full text of Child Sexual Abuse: Incest, Assault and Sexual Exploitation. Many valuable resources on the topic of child sexual abuse are cited in the endnotes.
Fay, J. He Told Me Not to Tell. Renton, Wash.: King County Rape Relief, 1979.
Garbarino, James, and Gwen Gilliam. Understanding Abusive Families. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, D. C. Heath, 1980.
Gilmartin, Pat. Rape, Incest, and Child Sexual Abuse: Consequences and Recovery. New York: Garland, 1994.
Iverson, Timothy J., and Marilyn Segal. Child Abuse and Neglect: An Information and Reference Guide. New York: Garland, 1990.
Pagelow, Mildred Daley. Family Violence. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Schetky, Diane H., et al. Child Sexual Abuse: A Handbook for Health Care and Legal Professionals. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1988.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * CITATION * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Understanding I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — : A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents


” Child Sexual Abuse .” Understanding I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 22 Apr 2013. <http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR0229&chapterID=GR0229-930&path=/books/greenwood&gt;

Chicago Manual of Style

” Child Sexual Abuse .” In Understanding I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR0229&chapterID=GR0229-930&path=/books/greenwood. (accessed April 22, 2013).

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