Friday, April 25, 2014

my truth: I am 1 in 4

During college I attended a production of The Vagina Monologues in which my roommate had a role. I went with a group of friends and enjoyed the show. The end included some brief statistics - like the fact that one in four females is sexually abused or assaulted in her lifetime.
The speaker then addressed the audience, asking for victims of sexual abuse to stand. The number of people - mostly women - standing in that theater was a bit staggering. I remained seated. 
I should have been standing. 

Because I am that statistic: 
I am one in four. 

It's something that took me a long time to come to terms with, to get past. And at that point back in college, the thought of admitting that was me? It was too much. I was too embarrassed. Why would I want my friends to know that about me?

I am reminded of an episode of Oprah (oh how I miss you on TV, Opes!). Oprah, as a victim of sexual abuse as a child herself, did quite a few shows on the subject during her television reign. This particular show featured three different sexual abusers. All had abused children. All were serving prison sentences. All three were on the show to speak of their crimes to shed some light on how they were able to do what they did, with the hope that parents could arm themselves with information to help prevent this heinous thing from happening to their own children. 

One of the abusers was speaking of his much younger cousin that he had abused: 
"I killed someone. I killed the person that she was supposed to become."

At the time, and even now, that really made sense to me. 

I will never know the person I would have been. 
In a way that person died when I was 7 years old. 
How much differently would I have turned out if I could have continued a blissfully innocent childhood? If years of my childhood hadn't been dedicated to keeping a secret and worrying constantly? 
Thinking back to that sad, anxious little girl who spent night after night for years pacing the upstairs hallway, waiting for the perfect moment to share that painful, horrible, ugly secret... it just makes me sad for her. My heart breaks for her.

But now, some 20 odd years later, I am not that little girl.
I know that the embarrassment and shame I carried around for so long wasn't ever mine to begin with. After years of tears and therapy and gradual self-awareness, I am at a place of forgiveness. I can't change what happened to me all those years ago, but I can try my hardest to prevent it from happening to my own kids.

So why am I bringing this all up now?
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Throughout this month I have seen a lot of info about ways parents can help protect their own children. So much of it was great, easy to implement teaching and tips so I wanted to pass some along. Because I know as parents our main goal for our children is that they be safe, happy, and healthy.

A couple stats.
  • It's estimated 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
  • 93% of juvenile victims know their abuser.

Teach your children the proper names for their body parts.
A vagina is a vagina. A penis is a penis. 
Teaching kids the proper names for their private parts helps them understand that while our privates are private, they aren't so private that children cannot talk about them. Also this gives kids the proper language so they can ask questions or communicate concerns should they have any.

Let children decide who can touch them.
Children are in control of their bodies and shouldn't be forced into situations they don't want to be in. So yeah, is it a tiny bit awkward when Junior refuses to give Grandma Caroline a kiss goodbye? Probably. But teaching kids that they shouldn't be pressured into personal contact against their will increases the chances that they will refuse or report other less-benign contact that makes them uncomfortable. 

Everyone has the right to privacy.
Just as kids should respect others' right to privacy, they also deserve privacy. Children need to know that no one should be touching their private parts without permission.

We don't keep secrets.
There is a big difference between a surprise and a secret. A surprise is something we keep from someone for a short amount of time - like a birthday present. A secret is different. Many abusers pressure their victims to "keep a secret." Tell your children that you never expect them to keep a secret from you, especially if it is something that makes them uncomfortable. 

Don't have just one big "talk"
Make sexual education a non-taboo topic in your house.
If you start talking to your kids at a young age - meaning starting at age 3 - and keep the dialogue open, adding new information as is appropriate, it should be much less awkward than you would imagine. 
Kids follow our cues. If we act uncomfortable or avoid the subject, they will know it isn't something to be talked about. You want your kids to be able to come talk to you, especially on a topic as important as this. The more accurate information your kids are armed with, the more likely they are to realize when a situation is inappropriate and come talk to you about it. 
Good information on how to start the conversation can be found at No Place Like Home

Be available.
Tell your children that they can come talk to you about anything.
Emphasize that whether it is good, bad, fun, sad, difficult or easy to talk about, you will be there to listen. And follow through.

Be involved.
Know as much as possible about your child's life. 
Know their coaches. Know their friends. Know their friends' parents. Know other adults that your child might talk to or confide in. Ask about what they did at school or while playing with friends. Know the kind of television shows they watch and the video games they play.

Know the signs
Many kids who have been abused or are being abused exhibit signs that adults might pick up on. Withdrawal or clingy behavior, bedwetting, angry outbursts, sexualized play, sleeping problems, a change in eating habits, or fear of new people and places are all signs that could point toward possible abuse. In older children or teens the signs can include drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, depression, and even attempts at suicide. Even if you aren't a parent yourself, it is helpful to know what to look for. Teachers, coaches, daycare providers, or just friends and family members can benefit from knowing this information and potentially make all the difference in a child's life.

None of these tips is a guarantee to keep your child safe from harm, but hopefully they will be a starting block to help us begin to protect our kids. 

Links and references


  1. I want every single parent to read this post at least three times. Seriously. Thank you so much for having the courage to share your story, as painful as it is. Breaking the culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse is the first step in overcoming it. I will be sharing this far and wide!

    1. Thank you Katie for your kind words and for sharing my post. If even one parent takes something away from my post then it was worth writing.

  2. Thank you so much Vanessa, for sharing your story and your advocacy. This should be something we are all talking about, all of the time. You are wonderful.

    1. Thanks Elise. You're pretty wonderful too. :)
      I think Jared sometimes thinks, "We are talking about vaginas again?!" but hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do! Hahaha

  3. Vanessa, my heart breaks for that little girl too. The picture you painted of yourself pacing the hallway is just too much. I really wish that didn't have to happen to you (or anyone else).

    Your words are so wise here. And I needed the reminder to keep talking to my son about this issue. I especially like your tip about not having just one big "talk" but to keep the talk open. We currently practice a lot of what you say, e.g. calling body parts by their names, not shaming them or giggling about them, giving him privacy, taking it all seriously and not dismissing it as childhood cuteness.

    At this point my son isn't really in anyone else's care other than at school. I'm actually very wary of who he talks to or spends time alone with. I'm sure people in our lives are wonderful and wouldn't harm him, but like you said, most abusers are people in the family or "circle of trust" (that's how they get you, right? It's not just your random stranger whisking you off in most cases). This kind of bothers me too because you're basically putting people you trust in a position where you don't 100% trust them. I don't know.

    I guess I just don't encourage activities that would make my son think it's okay. For instance, if I see him sitting on a male's lap, I'll say, "Sit over here, it's more comfortable." Or if he's hanging out with an older teen guy in a bedroom, I'll join them in the room. It sucks to do this to your own family and circle of trust but I guess the point I'm trying to get across to everyone is that certain things just aren't okay. Like, it's okay for me to cuddle with him in certain ways but not an uncle.

    It's so hard, and I know it would break my heart should anything happen to him. So thanks for the reminder to beef up my talks with him once again. And thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you Nina. Your post from a while back about similar tips motivated me to make this list along with telling my own personal story. And it was a good reminder for me too. I have always wanted to be a parent that keeps the lines of communication open on all topics, and my past makes me even more driven to do so.

      I have had those same thoughts: you trust family and friends but not necessarily completely. Honestly, I think that is a smart way of thinking. Sadly, it's just a fact of life. I know quite a few people who were molested as children and all of them were abused by family members. The stats speak for themselves. I have people that I trust 100% - but I can't completely trust the people they allow into their lives... So it is hard.

      And I think that is the whole point of talking to your kids. We can't be with them constantly, nor do we want to feel like we need to be with them at all times. They are going to branch out and go to sports, go to friends' houses, visit relatives...
      By talking to them and helping them understand the difference between right and wrong touch, as well as letting them know we are always there to listen - my hope is that that helps protect them as much as possible when I cannot be with them. I feel that knowledge is power, even when it comes to kids.

  4. Such great advice. I think the communication part is the most important. An abuser thrives on secret-keeping, so if those lines of communication are open and stay open, the children will have someone to come to at the earliest stages of odd or uncomfortable behavior.

    1. Thank you Courtney. I agree with you that communication is paramount with children, whether it be about topics such as this or even as small as which friend wasn't nice that day at recess. It reminds me of a quote I like:
      "If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff."


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