Educating Children About Sexual Abuse — Why?
I had been looking forward to the lavish birthday party my friend's mom said she'd organize for weeks. She would turn 11 during the school holidays and wanted a camping party. My friend lived in a huge house with a big garden that had a shed, and the party definitely lived up to my expectations.
My friend's mom was one of those real motherly moms. The party showed that too. She had prepared games, served snacks in the shapes of animals in that shed, and a organized a creepy story-telling session accompanied by the camp fire before we, kids, got to sleep in real tents in the garden. The whole class was there, and it was a lot of fun.
Their neighbor, a middle-aged bachelor who lived in an even bigger house and had a beautiful garden with a pond and exotic fish, also celebrated his birthday that night. My friend and I wandered into his garden with some of the other kids, so she could show us the fish. It was a decision that changed my life forever.
“Come and sit with us,” the neighbor must have said. Soon, we were drinking juice while the adults got drunk. One guy was a foreigner, from the same place where my father was born. We got talking. It must have taken him five minutes to find out that I was bothered by my multi-ethnic background, often got into fights with teachers, didn't have a great relationship with my mom, and that my father was dead. Oh, I also told him that I kept pet snakes at home. He was into snakes too.
I don't know why — it must have been intuition — but I told him I did have a step dad and he lived with my mom and me, as soon as he asked more about my father. That was an outright lie. Later that night, as were about to go to sleep, my tent mates talked about the boys they liked. My friend made an odd remark. She said she thought the guy I'd been talking to fancied me, and that he was a pedophile.
Months later, that guy showed up at my house. He had wanted to give me a book about snakes, he said to my mom, and my friend's mother had given him my address. Weeks after that, he and my mother were an item. And weeks after that, he raped me. He had been living with some house mates, but now that he had a girlfriend he wanted a place of his own. He asked my mom if I could help him unpack his stuff at the new place while she got some rest, and she agreed.
Talking about this doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I'll just say that I knew what he was doing and knew that he was wrong, but it went on for years anyway.
OK, I hope that most people know that guys that meet your kid first and then go to extreme lengths to charm you are probably dangerous. Statistics that say one in three girls and one in five boys will have encountered sexual abuse by the time they're 18 are all over the internet.
Who does that kind of thing? Oh, just about anyone can do it — religious figures, teachers, sports coaches, relatives, and the list goes on. The signs are hardly impossible to spot, though, as long as we're open to seeing them. Adults who want to victimize your kids may come from all walks of life, but they do have some things in common:
- They need to spend time alone with their victim to be able to commit their crimes, so they look for ways to make that happen.
- They don't want to go to jail, so they seek out situations in which reporting is unlikely to occur. They look for vulnerable children, and vulnerable families. I was vulnerable in quite a few ways, but kids who don't know much about sex who have families that don't know much about sexual abuse would definitely fit the bill.
- They need your trust.
- They tend to escalate the abuse gradually, testing the reactions of their victims and their families.
How Do You Find Out More?
Sexual abuse is hardly a pleasant topic, but finding out more about how it happens minimizes the chances that it will happen to your kids. I found Gavin de Becker's books, Protecting The Gift and The Gift Of Fear, immensely helpful. While de Becker doesn't really share anything most of us don't already know deep down, he does move this information into the conscious brain.
What do you tell your children about sexual abuse, though? Many parents are reluctant to discuss this topic with their kids, because it might frighten them. Another reason to refrain from talking about sexual abuse is that sex in general can be a bit of a taboo.
Probably as a direct result of my own experiences, I have been talking to my kids about bodily autonomy and sexual abuse from the time they were quite tiny. Things every parent can and should do to help prevent sexual abuse include:
- Teaching children the correct names of their genitals and the genitals of the opposite sex.
- Teaching children it's wrong for anyone to touch their genitals, ask them to touch another's person's genitals, take pictures of their genitals, and other related activities.
- Making sure that kids know this is a crime, they can say no, and you will always take them seriously if they tell you about anything like this. Even “innocent” secrets like shared candy should be reported because they could be part of the grooming process.
- Sexual abuse is never, ever the child's fault. Not even if they happened to be curious at the time or didn't actively resist.
- People your child knows are more likely to sexually abuse them than strangers are. Sexual abuse isn't about “stranger danger”; it is about sexual abuse.
- If your child tells you about being sexually abused, you won't freak out and kill the guy (or sometimes gal) and you won't question your kid endlessly. You will never, ever wonder if it might have been your child's fault and you will take them seriously.
In our family, we talk about this topic quite frequently. That's because my kids are very interested in knowing how they can contribute to their own safety, and because role playing that they say “No!!” to a predator is quite a lot of fun. One conversation simply isn't enough to ensure these messages take up permanent residence in a child's brain.
We have used a curriculum meant to help prevent sexual abuse made by Child Lures Prevention. (http://www.childluresprevention.com) My kids have enjoyed learning about various ways predators may try to take advantage, and the (pretty thin) booklets have been a starting point for more interesting conversations.
No matter how you address this, don't completely neglect to talk about sexual predators. They are really quite likely to show up at some point. Education can make the difference between your child becoming a victim and not. It could also encourage your child to tell you what's happening if sexual abuse does occur, stopping it immediately and getting the criminal locked up.
Jack is the enthusiastic, opinionated mother of two kids who are frustratingly similar to her. They are "global citizens", otherwise known as perpetual foreigners. Happily, they're comfortable with being in a minority, and it's just as well because they're just about the only homeschoolers in their Eastern European country of residence and are multiethnic to boot. Jack enjoys knitting, redecorating furniture, and talking about things that shock people. She homeschools because she wants her kids to have a decent education and a childhood in which they can feel normal, despite being multiethnic, Jewish, vegetarian and raised by a widowed mom.