Nov 272012

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!!

 Posted by at 10:50 am

  10 Responses to “A Real Look at Preventing Sexual Abuse”

  1. Thank you for this. I have a 1 year old daughter and this is truly one of my biggest fears.

  2. One of the best post I’ve read on the subject: dispels myths and gives some ways to increse resilience and reduce risk.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this. I regularly use the proper names for genitalia when I’m diapering my 15-month-old daughter. (I actually had to ask my OB-GYN what exactly the vulva and labia were, because no one ever taught me that when I was little.) This article reminded me that soon (if not now) I should start including statements like, “Only you and Mommy and Daddy, and the doctor when we’re with you, should touch your genitals.”

    • The only thing I would add to your statement is “and only with your permission!” Even with young children, I think it is important to ask for and get their permission when touching them. So in the bathtub, a parent may say “You need to make sure your penis is clean. Would you like me to show you how?” or “The doctor is going to touch your penis, is that okay with you?” It is important that they know that they can say no, even to mom, dad or doctor!

  4. I have what may be perceived as a silly question, but it’s genuine. I’ve often heard in the context of sexual abuse prevention and as you state above to teach children the correct names for genitalia meaning the medical or latin word. I’m wondering if you can explain more about the importance of this and how it helps in preventing sexual abuse?

    I have a young daughter and have not decided yet what name I want to use for her genitals. At this point I still say when changing her diaper that I am wiping her bottom. I like your suggestion to ask her permission and I’d like to start being more specific in naming her genitals because I can see that she has become more aware of them.

    I have never liked the word vagina because of how clinical it sounds and because of the original meaning. It comes from the Latin word sheath, and the root “wag” means to break or split. Both violent images and a description of the female body in terms of something else it is supposed to wrap around. Vulva is easier to take as it means female sexual organ or womb. I’ve rarely heard people use it except for some educated women who have offered their daughters specific and anatomically correct descriptions of the genitals including the vulva, vagina, labia and clitoris. I think it’s wonderful for a girl to get this kind of understanding of her body.

    I like the word yoni from Sanskrit as an overall description of female genitalia. It has various translations but all of them include a notion of the sacred – a temple, an opening, a spring, the source of life etc. — a celebration of the female body rather than a description of it as something used to contain an ojbect of war!

    Before I make a choice I’d like to hear why I might choose the more traditional, medical names especially in the context of sexual abuse prevention. I was sexually abused as a child and I very much appreciate all you’ve said above (your description of the sexual abuser and how it happens is exactly how it happened to me.) I want to do everything in my power to prevent it from happening to my daughter.

    Many thanks.

    • Elanne, Thank you for your comments and questions. This may end up being more of a post in an of itself, but here are my thoughts.

      I advocate for using the culturally specific “official” name of all body parts. Vagina, vulva, labia, clitoris, scrotum, penis. Teaching them this in the same way we would teach the other body parts. While I see your point that the original Latin meaning of some words may not be as positive, I think that the message we give by avoiding the normative names, or communicating about body parts with shame, embarrassment, or discomfort is much more salient than the message children would get from the Latin meaning.

      The other day I witnessed an amazing moment between a four year old girl and her mother. We were all sitting in the living room and the girl walked up to her mother and said “my clitoris hurts. I think I fell and I want you to look at.” The mother went into the other room, where I could hear the conversation continuing. The girl told her mother “it’s not the labia that hurts, it’s the clitoris. I think I fell on the monkey bars.” The mother noted that it looked a little red, and asked if the girl would like her to help put cream on it. “I can do it myself.” And she did.

      I was so amazed at this interaction. First of all, for many girls this age, who don’t have a respectful understanding of their genitals, this conversation would have looked a lot different. This little girl had the language to say exactly what was wrong. She had the comfort with her body, and trust of her parent to discuss what was going on, find the problem and take care of it. She also was able to tell her mother that she didn’t want her to touch her, she wanted to do it herself. This girl had autonomy and a voice with regards to her body.

      Teaching children the correct names of their genitals is in no way the final answer to preventing sexual abuse. But it is a very important step towards helping a child build a healthy understanding of their bodies, develop their own voice for communicating about their bodies and avoid shame, embarrassment or confusion around their sexual organs. All of which builds a solid foundation for a child’s healthy sexual development.

      Another reader posted a comment (on a different post) noting that we do in fact use nicknames for lots of body parts (she pointed out noggin, chompers, tummy, kisser) to name a few. I totally agree, but note that for all these parts, we ALSO routinely call body parts by their culturally normative name (head, teeth, stomach, mouth, lips, etc.) If we build a foundation in which the actual names of genitals are part of our lexicon without shame then the other names we may use (e.g. yoni, which I agree, has lovely meaning) will be just that, another name.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is worth being a post of it’s own!

        • With regard to correct anatomical language, I was told as part of child protection training that if abuse has occurred it is important for children to have the correct language to describe what happened. Nick names leave much more room for ambiguity. This is such an important subject. The programme I trained in also talked about people you could tell, privacy, how to tell etc.

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