A Necessary, Scary Thought… Child Sexual Abuse
I am a member of a team presenting information about protecting children from sexual abuse. This community education program is called Protecting Our Children – Advice from Child Molesters. Prior to being a therapist here at Mosaic Family Counseling Center, I worked as a Prevention Coordinator at the Center for Advocacy and Outreach at Blank Children’s Hospital. My prevention focus was child personal safety specifically in the areas of sexual abuse, bullying, and stranger abduction.
I realize child sexual abuse is a topic that most people would rather not think about – that’s what child molesters are counting on. By working this issue through programming at the schools I came to know a lot about it. I know how often it happens. I know the impact it has on victims. I know protecting children is the responsibility of adults. I know how to talk with a child and report the matter if a child discloses information to me. Lastly, I know – or I thought I did - how perpetrators operate. Yeah – that last one about how perpetrators operate - I now realize that what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. So – let’s review what I know (or thought I knew).
First off, what is child sexual abuse? Basically, any sexual act directed toward a child. The act is done solely for the pleasure of the perpetrator. The child is a victim, the power and control dynamic is ever present and fully active. The perpetrator may also be a child; in such cases the child perpetrator has more power which maybe in the form of knowledge, age, popularity etc. And, last but not least, child sexual abuse is never consensual as children cannot consent.
How often does child sexual abuse happen? The numbers vary but research shows approximately 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will experience sexual abuse by the time they turn 18 years old. The lowest number I’ve come across is 1 out of 10 kids. This research did not differentiate between genders and did not consider non-contact abuse. I’m not sure what the point of that was because exhibitionism and voyeurism are certainly victimizing acts. Since estimates in the field are commonly 1 out 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys, let’s do the math here. In a classroom of 25 children, that is about 2-3 girls and 1-2 boys. Even if we use the research estimate of 1 out of 10 kids that is still more than 2 kids per classroom. Yep – it’s that common.
What impact does child sexual abuse have on victims? This is a traumatizing event, to say the least. If you’re familiar with ACES research, (Adverse Child Experiences). Consider that only about 5% of the incidents of child sexual abuse is done at the hands of a stranger. So that means the child victim usually knows, usually loves and trusts, the perpetrator. Think about that – this is a violation down to the core! After such a violation, victims have trust issues. They feel guilt, shame and responsible for what has happened. They have low self-esteem and self-worth. They go on to have relationship problems. They turn to any number of things to cope and feel better – alcohol, drugs, food, and delinquency. They are often promiscuous. They suffer from depression and anxiety. Honestly, the list goes on and on.
Protecting children is the responsibility of adults – period. Adults are given the enormous task of keeping our kids safe and raising them so that they can take over and manage things long after we’re all gone. I was the person empowering kids with assertiveness skills in the area of personal safety. But that message and those personal safety programs are not meant to stand alone – ever. As a parent, you’re not free and clear once your kid has “the little talk” at school. And I’m not referring to the stranger danger message, the term “stranger danger” is not recommended by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, by the way. In my experience, parents are all too eager to discuss the boogie-man stranger with their kids. Things get a little more difficult and challenging when it’s Grandpa, the babysitter who’s come through in a bind, a coach, someone at church, or that nice neighbor kid two houses over. But it’s time to take up that challenge, folks, because as I mentioned above 95% of those 1-5 kids in that classroom who are victimized by child sexual abuse know their perpetrator. The odds of your kid being abducted and killed by a stranger are substantially lower than that – think winning the lottery. The tragic and horrific nature of stranger abduction crimes certainly grabs our attention and yes – our kids need to know what to do if they are approached by a stranger. But with this kind of data staring us in the face they REALLY need to know what to do if the person is NOT a stranger.
So now that I have given all this information direct, straight, and to the point. How do we deal with this awful reality in our world? How do you talk to kids about this sort of stuff?
First, planning out your conversation with your kids or children you love. Keep the following in mind.
Use simple language, be genuine, and be honest. One approach is talking about problems because we all have problems. Some big problems – some little problems. Some people lie so they have a lying problem. Some people spend way more money than they have so they have money problems. And some people have touching problems. You can then go on to say something like - I’m your parent and I love you more than anything. If someone ever touches you in a way you don’t like – you can tell me and I will believe you. You won’t be in trouble – ever. Start there and see where it goes.
That seems simple enough, right? Well, now I’m going to have you thinking about the back of a shampoo bottle… “rinse and repeat”.
Have you ever considered if we followed those directions we would never get out of the shower? But I digress – repeat this conversation in a developmentally appropriate manner with your child 3-4 times per year. Of course somewhere between age 5 and 8 all children need to have received basic sex education from their parents. If your kid is over 8 years old and they do not truly understand where babies come from – take care of that today. A good book to help you - Did the sun shine before you were born? Written by Sol and Judith Gordon.
Another way to look at it and I’ve used this analogy for folks who feel this subject is too scary for kids. Well, having their school blown away by a tornado or burning down in a fire is pretty scary too. Yet they have fire drills and tornado drills in the school. Now, in light of the number of school shootings our country has experienced they have lock-down drills. People – this is scary stuff and the school (my kid’s school anyway) just does it – they don’t notify parents or get a permission slip signed. Why? Because these things are reality – they happen – and kids need to know what to do if fill in the blank happens. I’m advocating that being victimized by sexual abuse be a fill in the blank issue. Yep – it’s that common – it happens.
With either of the examples above, the subject is being blended into a number of other like issues that children face – people have touching problems – safety issue akin to a fire – be creative and pick your way to talk to your child. But do it – don’t shy away from it.
Believe me, perpetrators steer clear of kids who know what sex is; they avoid secure and self-assured kids; and want nothing to do with kids who are well-versed in knowledge of what to do and who to go to if/when someone seems a little off.
So, as I mentioned above I knew the tip of the iceberg of how perpetrators operate before I joined the team doing Protecting our Children – Advice from Child Molesters. What I knew then was that perpetrators groom children. What I know now is they groom families, organizations, and communities (think Jerry Sandusky). What I knew then was that perpetrators seek vulnerable children. What I know now is they manipulate situations so that vulnerable children are even more vulnerable. They isolate their victims. They create situations so the victim and victim’s family are dependent upon the perpetrator. Make no mistake – child sexual abuse is a crime and child molesters are criminals. They have criminal thinking. They do criminal acts. And they are in our churches, our schools, our communities, and our families.
The most profound thing I have learned from Protecting Our Children – Advice from Child Molesters is to not insulate myself and think it is “those people – over there”. Even with everything I knew then, teaching this information directly to children myself, I still to some degree separated myself from it. I talked the talk but I didn’t walk the walk – not always. Now, at the end of the community education when the team and I are summarizing all the points there stands that bullet point - Be open to the fact that someone you know is a child molester. Yep – it’s that common. And once we wrap our collective head around THAT FACT, we will be in a better place to do more about it.
Contributed by: Renae Jones MS, LMHCP