PREVENTING CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
Alright, let’s just say the uncomfortable thing right out loud. Child sexual abuse is common and it is rampant. It’s not openly talked about, largely in part because the victims themselves feel shame and blame for what happened to them. This perpetuates the idea that it’s not as big of a problem as it is, and it only serves to protect the abusers’ anonymity more. Fear of not being believed plays into it as well, and this has really been brought to light in the midst of the Me Too movement. We’ve been programmed to be skeptical or disbelieving of victims, which victimizes them twice and silences the next victim down the line. There’s some serious cognitive dissonance going on here, because I’ve spoken with people who are vocally resistant to the Me Too movement, only to discover that they themselves were date-raped or had a “touchy uncle” in childhood. It doesn’t take much to realize that children are targets of a very real threat, despite the hushed nature of the topic. As parents, we have to do everything we can to protect our children from predators. We are their biggest and only advocates, at first, so we need to take every precaution. This is one instance where you can use fear to your advantage, because fear is a primal indicator of danger. When you’re at a place where you trust your intuitive body, you will feel supported enough to listen to the fear response when it’s being activated as intended.
The gut feeling of yourself and your child should always be honoured when it comes to people and situations. I think back to one time when I pulled up to the bank after-hours to use the ATM machine and noticed an orange truck parked there before I pulled into the parking lot. I got out of my car and a man got out of the truck at the same time I did, and he held the door of the bank open for me. I walked in, out of politeness, but out of instinct, I ducked under his arm and scurried back to my car. I watched him go into the vestibule where he did not use the bank machine. I have wondered what might have happened to me if I ignored my gut. Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, studied a multitude of cases involving violent sexual attacks, and he said that in every single case that he analyzed, the victim had a moment where an intuitive feeling had signaled them of danger before the attack but they ignored it. We’re conditioned to not make other people uncomfortable. But if we become too accommodating, too people-pleasing, too agreeable, too courteous, we are greater candidates for abuse.
We have to be so deliberate with what we are teaching our children in interactions with strangers and friends alike. The most pertinent thing anyone can understand about abusers is that the monsters don’t look like monsters. They can seem friendly, charming, generous and nice. In fact, many abusers “groom” their victims beforehand, in which they attempt to gain the trust of the victim or the victim’s parents, by appearing friendly, giving gifts, providing favours, and so on. Because of this, the rule must be that no one gets special treatment; and I mean no one. If you feel uneasy about a grandparent, an uncle, a babysitter, a neighbour, a sibling or even your spouse, do not leave your child alone with them, under any circumstances. Cynthia Loyst, co-host of The Social, said she wouldn’t leave her child alone with anyone, other than perhaps a very trusted family member, until her child was old enough to talk. I agree with that sentiment. I think it is a wise and cautious measure. I want my children to be able to tell me if anyone were to harm them. If they do tell you, believe them and take it seriously. If you have a non-verbal or pre-verbal child, and you must leave them in the care of a babysitter or daycare, watch for signs of emotional distress, unease, fear, withdrawing and physical reactions. Even verbal children don’t always know how to identify feelings like anxiety, which may present as a tummy ache, fatigue, or self-harm.
What can we do to teach our young children about consent and body autonomy? First, teach them the proper anatomical names for their body parts. Penis, scrotum, anus, vagina and vulva are not bad words. Age appropriate sexual education is paramount. Teach them when, where and with whom nudity and touching is appropriate – bath time and doctor’s appointments, for example. Respect the word “No” in all contexts. If your child doesn’t want to be tickled or hugged, then stop doing it when they voice that. Tell others to stop when they don’t listen and teach your kids to show others the same courtesy. Place the importance of consent above the hurt feelings of adults, even when it’s a close friend or family member. Again, no one gets special treatment; no one. Adults often playfully manipulate children into hugs, kisses and cuddles, by pretending to cry or be sad when they won’t give a hug, using reverse psychology or offering treats and rewards. It is your job to explain to these adults the implication of using coercion to gain physical affection and favours. This is exactly the type of tactic child abusers will use to lure children into sexual scenarios, and if you or anyone else forces them to be physically affectionate in an innocent setting, the child won’t feel empowered to turn down sexual propositioning in an inappropriate situation. Teach them that anyone who tells them to keep a secret from you has no business telling them that, and that should be taken as a sign to tell you immediately.
As a society, we also need to destigmatize pedophilia, as uncomfortable and confronting as that may sound. To be very clear, I am not suggesting the normalization of child sexual abuse, nor am I sympathizing with pedophiles. I simply want to point out that not all pedophiles are child abusers. Not everyone who experiences sexual attraction to minors will act on their urges. I, for one, would want someone to feel safe enough to self-identify so that I could make sure they would never be put in a position where they would have access to minors unattended. Pedophilia is a mental disorder and the goal is to encourage these people to seek help and obtain treatment. The more we shame and isolate those suffering, the more likely they will be to seek outlets which inevitably and irreparably harm children. It’s difficult to do, but if we can just slightly increase the dialogue and awareness around it, and if we can offer a label for these people that implies illness over evil, we stand a better chance to treat and rehabilitate them, which ultimately makes a safer world for our kids. If you can switch your perspective to viewing it as similar to drug addiction, you can begin to see that many pedophiles are dealing with their own trauma and sexual abuse history, and they need support and intervention.
The other thing we need to do is put pressure on all governments to prioritize ending child sexual exploitation. It’s not enough to keep our own children safe in our little bubble in our little corner of the world. We need the marginalized, vulnerable and at-risk children to be shielded from this atrocious evil that exists in the world. We need more education for women and we need better standards of living across the board. We need to be vocally and actively supporting the authorities that are doing the meaningful work of tracking and busting those involved in producing, distributing and consuming child pornography, as well as trafficking and abusing children for sexual or other purposes. We need to be vocally and actively supporting the organizations working tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate the children affected by sex slavery.