Sexual abuse prevention is an issue close to my heart and something I have worked with for many years in various capacities. I have written about protecting our children from sexual abuse numerous times, and while these posts are not usually popular, several things occurred over the past few weeks that told me it was time to write again anyway. First, local news coverage in Portland, Oregon, has focused on the location of a sex offender treatment program (see coverage here). Families and businesses in the vicinity are alarmed that offenders are being treated in their neighborhood—close to a preschool, a Boys and Girls Club and their homes. This reaction is not uncommon and is, in fact, easily understood. The treatment center is currently searching for a new location. Second, in another part of the country, Janet Lansbury, who many know and trust as an early childhood expert, reposted a blog about her experience of finding out that someone she knew and trusted turned out to be a child molester (see the post here). While she originally wrote the blog post several years ago, the post is just as relevant today.
While these two scenarios are quite different, at the heart of both of them is a false sense of security. We avoid dealing with the real issues of child abuse by telling ourselves three lies:
1) Sexual abusers are usually strangers.
2) I can tell a sex abuser when I see one.
3) My child would definitely tell me if anything was wrong.
In reality, none of these statements are absolutely true. Here are some true facts:
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 report on Child Maltreatment, 81% of children who are abused (all types of abuse including sexual abuse) are victimized by a parent, 6.1% by another relative, 4.4% by an unmarried partner, 5.7% by another caretaker (including a child care worker, foster parent, legal guardian, babysitter, etc). Only 2.8% are abused by someone unknown to the child.
Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 20% of women and 10% of men experienced sexual abuse as children. Some statistics suggest the rates are higher. Look around your preschool or playgroup or neighborhood. One in four or five girls will be victimized. That is a hard fact to swallow. There are no demographics that are left unaffected. Now look closer: Most sexual abuse is committed by men (90%) and by persons known to the child (70–90%), with family members constituting the large majority of offenders. A child is much more likely to be abused by someone they know and trust than a stranger. (See more stats here)
Here is another important fact. Only a small percentage of convicted sex offenders go on to be arrested for new sexual crimes (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003). Most people who are sexually abused are abused by someone who has never been caught. These offenders are not registered sex offenders and they will not show up on background searches. Who are they? They are our friends, neighbors, family members. They are people we know from school or church or work. Our kids trust them, we trust them. They do not have a label or a sign or clearly identifiable traits that scream, “Warning, I am a sex offender.”
So what does this all mean?
- We must let go of the “Stranger Danger” security blanket. Yes, a very small percentage of children are abused by offenders who target children who don’t know them. And yes, these scenarios that make the evening news are terrifying. But, focusing on this allows us to turn a blind eye to the more likely threat to our children. It is harder, scarier and more difficult to talk with our children about sexual abuse that may come from someone they trust. It’s tricky and messy and confusing. We don’t want to think about it ourselves. We know we have to say something to our kids, so we keep it safe and distant: We talk about stranger danger. But, the truth is that this just isn’t enough.
- We have to let go of the myth that children will tell us, clearly and promptly, if something is happening. We would like to think that if we have one discussion with our children about “good touch” and “bad touch,” they will know the difference and be able to tell us when someone crosses their boundaries. But, it’s not always easy for kids to tell. Children who experience abuse often have been “groomed.” Groomed to be afraid of getting in trouble or getting someone they love and trust in trouble. Groomed to feel it is their fault. Often the line between good touch and bad touch is very blurry. Often they do say something and we don’t listen, we dismiss or minimize or don’t want to believe it ourselves. Telling is tricky. Responding is tricky. There are layers and layers of issues wrapped up in this process. It isn’t easy or clean cut in any way.
- We have to accept the fact that sexual abuse is everyone’s problem. It isn’t something that happens to “those victims” by “those bad guys.” It is something that is deeply entrenched in our culture. It happens to “our children” by “people we know.” I guarantee that each and every one of us personally knows someone who has sexually assaulted someone. We may not know it, but we do. It’s just a fact.
So, what do we need to do differently? Here are three specific actions we can take:
- We need to be building families in which dialogue about feelings, thoughts and experiences is not only acceptable, but is the norm. We need our children to know that they can tell us they don’t like or feel good about someone, even if they can’t articulate why. And they need to know that we will respect, honor and protect them. I have written about this in depth in other posts, but in a nutshell, it starts from day one. Never tell a child to hug or kiss or tolerate any kind of touch from anyone if they don’t want it. They have to know that if they don’t want to kiss grandma, they don’t have to, and we will respect that and help them maintain their boundaries. Read more here.
- We need to be helping kids listen to their own instincts and feel comfortable to tell us about them. Oftentimes, sexual abuse starts with touching that isn’t considered “bad touch.” Shoulder rubs, tickling, hugging or snuggling. Games with older children, cousins, neighbors, friends which may start benign and lead in to more abusive behaviors. Boundaries are slowly eroded, so that by the time “bad touch” happens, children often feel like it is “too late” to tell. We can help children develop their ability to listen to their instincts by respecting their boundaries and helping them articulate these boundaries on an ongoing basis. A child doesn’t have to have a reason to not want to be touched. A child doesn’t have to have a reason to not want to play with a certain peer. We can support their boundaries and give them the message that their inner voice is valid. When we validate and support this (every day) we give them the message that they can say when something doesn’t feel right. Helping a child recognize and honor their instincts about a situation will help them stop abuse before it happens to them. It empowers them, and not only with regard to sexual abuse, but with peer pressure as well! Read more here.
- We have to give children a vocabulary to express themselves. Start with the words we use for genitals. Use the correct names. Vagina. Penis. Vulva. Scrotum. Anus. Oh yes, you can. These are body parts to be respected just like all other body parts. Use their correct names. In the same way, give them a vocabulary to express emotions. And not just the big emotions, the subtle ones too. Nervous, uncomfortable, anxious, confused, worried. Often children’s experiences in the early stages of sexual abuse may be more subtle. If their experience doesn’t fit easily into any category, or they don’t have the more subtle words to describe it, they don’t say anything. And, we have to give them the language to be able to change their mind. The other week I noticed two children wrestling. One started crying when it got too rough, and the parent responded saying, “Well, you wanted to wrestle, so I guess you asked for it.” The problem with this message is that it denies the child’s inner limit. “This was fun, and now it isn’t.” We can support their inner instinct that things have shifted. The relationship is no longer fun, the game is no longer working. They can call it off anytime they want. (Read more here)
In order to better support our children, we as parents need to open our own dialogue about sexual abuse. We need to be willing to look at our own issues, fears, expectations, beliefs, myths and triggers. We as a society need to talk more openly. We need more posts like Janet Lansbury’s. We need more voices talking about a new way to change the way we help children 1) know and stand up for their own bodies and boundaries and 2) grow into adults who respect the bodies and boundaries of others.
To this aim, Core Parenting will be devoting special space on this blog to collecting voices, stories, articles and posts from others that work towards a goal of raising sexually healthy children. Want to contribute? Contact us!!