The month of April is both the month for sexual assault and child abuse awareness—two serious societal problems that span across many cultures.
In 1987, I began working with children in specialized foster care. At that time, not enough was known about child abuse, especially sexual abuse. There was a misunderstanding around cause and effect: Because abused children often develop behaviors to cope with the circumstances of their lives, it was easy to believe parents were more likely to abuse these children because they were difficult to manage. It wasn’t common then to think, If this child has such severe behavior, there must have been trauma in his or her background.
It was at the beginning of the recovered memory period when many well-meaning therapists tried to get children to remember their trauma and created false memories in their clients. Is was a confusing time. Having an abusive parent avoid detection is horrible, but it is equally horrible to accuse an innocent person of such a terrible thing. Once you have been found guilty of child molestation, you are a convicted sex offender who must register in the community where you live.
I don’t believe the average person understands the statistics of child sexual abuse: One out of three girls will be sexually abused by the time she is 18 years old. One in six or seven boys are sexually abused during the same timeframe, though this is believed to be an underestimate as boys are less likely to come forward. These numbers don’t even include physical abuse and neglect, and still, the numbers are staggering.
I once attended a training on this topic with expert Jan Hindman. She began her presentation with this statement: “The only person I know in room that isn’t a child molester is myself.” She was making the point that child abusers don’t wear signs and generally blend into society undetected. Regardless of how well you know someone, that proclivity is something you may be completely unaware of.
When you think of what life could be like for an abused child, it’s unpredictable and extremely terrifying. The child never knows when the violence or violation of their body will happen. There is no one to tell and no one to talk to. The molester is an expert at isolating that child from other children and often threatens other siblings, and even their mother, if the child tells. Children are also told if they tell, they will never be believed and will be taken out the house. Unfortunately, this can occur when the non-offending parent refuses to believe the accusations and allows the perpetrator to have continued access to the child.
Can you imagine what this is like for a child? How does a child make sense of that? He or she knows what is happening does not feel good to them and yet, physically it might. The body responds as it was intended, only at a much earlier age. This conflict of shame with sexual pleasure sets the stage for difficulties at every sexually developmental milestone. They often feel dirty and believe they are to blame. There are even situations where the perpetrator provides his victims with special privileges that the child wouldn’t want to lose.
These perpetrators are not the strangers hiding behind the bushes, as my parents cautioned me about. They are the adults in their life that they are taught to love, trust and respect.
Sexual assault of adults bears some similarities to child abuse. Most sexual assault victims are women, although men are not immune. There is physical and positional power to contend with; it is not a surprise to me that some men struggle to understand this aspect. I have heard from men that they find it hard to believe actresses cave in to sexual demands because they’re scared of losing their jobs for not complying. They think they can just get a different job where sex isn’t the expectation. These thoughts are not surprising because they come from a place of privilege. Many men enjoy the privilege of being in charge. When they say no, they are viewed more as decisive; a woman saying no is seen as troublesome. Men struggle with this. Yes, they have mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. They have empathy in that way, but it’s easy to see the people they love as never being in such a situation because they believe they have the power to protect them. And to some degree, that’s true. But first, the women in your life need to feel comfortable telling you. She needs to know you will believe her and must believe you won’t do anything to make a difficult situation even worse. She will blame herself enough without being asked things like whether she was flirting, what she was wearing, or how much she had to drink.
We have lived in a society where the message is, “men will be men.” Women are supposed to be helpers while men have the power in politics, finances and physical strength. I am a member of the #MeToo movement. I experienced sexual harassment on the job and date rape before there was a name for that. It’s hard to explain in today’s environment why I never said anything. If the same thing happened today, I would like to think I would. I blamed myself for the date rape because I had too much to drink and was passed out when it started; I assumed it was my fault for being in that situation. As for the sexual harassment, I had my butt pinched by a male co-worker walking up behind me. When I turned to slap the perpetrator, there were five guys laughing; I had no way to know who was responsible, so I told no one. I can even remember in middle school, the age of the mini skirt, it was common for boys, at least in my school, to raise the skirt of girls walking down the hall. This often meant the offender liked the girl. There wasn’t trauma for most of us. It was a different time, a different culture.
Unless it was a violent, criminal act, I find it wrong to hold men responsible for their actions during those times when it was the societal norm. Today, in our current climate, men must be held accountable. It is no longer “no big deal” to take advantage, sexually manipulate and violate women simply because they have the power to do so. Women deserve an equal amount of power, where they are able to speak out and receive justice for wrongs committed against them. With this power comes the responsibility to be honest and not falsely accuse. A false accusation can ruin a person’s relationships and life, and it is a major disservice to those truly suffering through abuse and a faulty justice system.
Sexual Assault Awareness involves so much: letting women know they have a right to say no and be heard; helping men understand why this isn’t a level playing field, as there are many factors women struggle with that men have never experienced; and helping women know this is not an area to use as a weapon to falsely hurt someone they are angry with.
As it relates to children and sexual abuse, they need to be believed until you have evidence to the contrary. The way the system works, perpetrators are innocent until proven guilty. However, children may be telling the truth without there being enough evidence to stop the abuse. We have a responsibility to protect children who are unable to protect themselves. Believe them.
As a person who cares about these topics, believe people and work to help them regain their sense of control and efficacy. People need to be in complete control of their bodies. No one has the right to touch anyone without their permission.
If you are someone who wants to take sexual pleasure from children and adults without their permission, seek help. Stay out of situations where you will be able to satisfy your urges. The people you are getting pleasure from are not inanimate objects. They are human beings, with hope and dreams. You are robbing them of their innocence, in the case of children, and ability to trust in all cases. Be the person others can trust, not fear. Pleasure yourself or find a willing partner of sufficient age to consent.