by Oralee Wachter
Child sexual abuse. Incest. Just a few years ago these were words hidden deep in the closet. Today they are splashed in the headlines of newspapers throughout the country. They are the topics of “talk shows,” hearings and conferences. The case of the alleged sexual abuse of possibly hundreds of children over a period of years at the Virginia McMartin PreSchool in California was the beginning of disclosures that shocked the country. Suddenly, cases came to light at pre-school and daycare centers, youth groups, public and private schools throughout the United States, including the famed Minneapolis Children’s Theatre and School. No longer was the strange man in the car considered the main perpetrator of child sexual abuse (although certainly such men exist); the majority of abusers – more than 80 percent have been found to be family members or close acquaintances of the child or family. In other cases, the molesters are often those who find jobs that give them access to children and where they can exploit their position of trust and authority. Perhaps the most surprising information to emerge recently is that, contrary to our previous ideas about child molesters, some have turned out to be women.
There are no real figures on the numbers of children molested every year since most cases go unreported. In many instances, the child doesn’t even realize he or she is being abused, especially when the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts. The estimate of one of every four girls and one of every seven boys being sexually abused in childhood must be considered the tip of the iceberg. In discussions of sexual abuse with grown women, the majority will remember some instance of child sexual abuse that happened to them that, until the discussion, they hadn’t realized was sexual abuse because there had not been penetration.
Unfortunately, there is no real way to screen sexual abusers since few of them have police records. Our concern as parents must be to talk to children about the sensitive subject without frightening them or making them feel that all touch is wrong and all adults suspicious. To do this, we ourselves must understand what comprises sexual abuse and translate this knowledge to the child in terms the child can understand. Here are some facts of child sexual abuse of which we should all be aware: Any activity that exploits a child for the sexual gratification of another is sexual abuse.
This includes any contact of a sexual nature (such as fondling, intercourse, oral or anal sexual contact), as well as activities that do not involve touching (such as use of obscene phone calls, exposure or using children as subjects of pornographic material).
Most molestations are done by someone known to the child. Sexual abuse occurs in safe as well as unsafe locations. Opportunities for abuse exist at home, homes of friends and relatives, recreation and youth programs, foster care facilities and predictably, any activities that attract children. Coercion and deception are more commonly employed than violence and force.
The adult may adopt a protective pose or offer gifts or bribes to see whether the child will retreat or go along with a conspiratorial relationship. Once established, the abuse may continue over weeks or months, maintained by secrecy, trickery or threats. In some instances of incest, the sexual abuse goes on for years, from early childhood through adolescence or beyond.
Children can be taught prevention. As a general rule, you should make your information fit the age level of the child and repeat it as often as necessary.
Most children have not been prepared to resist a sexual advance from someone they know and trust, even if they’ve been warned about “strangers.” A great deal of sexual abuse can be averted by children when they know what it is and that it’s okay to talk about it. Common sense suggests that informed children make less suitable victims than naive ones.
When teaching prevention it is not necessary to go into complex issues involving sex. These are the main points that children need to know.*
1. Sexual abuse is being tricked or forced into sexual contact.
2. No one, even a friend or relative, has the right to do this.
3. It’s important to tell someone when you don’t like the way they are touching you or treating you.
4. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t protect yourself. It is never your fault when this happens.
5. Sexual abuse should not be secret. It’s okay to talk about it. Find and tell someone who will help to get the abuse stopped.
‘Adapted from the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project, Illusion Theatre. Minneapolis. MN
Children know the difference between “good” touch and “bad” touch. They need to be taught that it’s proper to express how they feel about any touching they don’t like. The following is some suggested dialogue. Use any terms you’re comfortable with, as long as the child understands.
“Everyone likes to be touched. Good touching like hugs, kisses and holding hands feels good (friendly, safe, cozy. warm). Bad touching feels bad, like pinching, squeezing, scratching, etc. Everyone knows what they like and what they don’t like.
“We’re talking about a different kind of touching. It can happen when someone wants to touch your body in a way that makes you feel all mixed up.
“Some parts of our bodies are private. We usually keep them covered up with bathing suits, clothes or underwear. Some words for these are bottom, buttocks, vagina, penis, under your panties, breasts, between your legs, down there, etc.
“We’re not used to talking about the private parts of our bodies, so you might feel embarrassed. But, this is a serious problem that happens to boys and girls and everyone needs to know what to do in case this ever happens to them.
“Your body belongs to you. If someone goes too far it’s okay to tell them you don’t like it. It’s important to trust your feelings and learn to tel people how you feel when they do things you don’t like.
“Sometimes we like a person but we don’t like what they’re doing. Even if they stop when you tell them to, you should tell someone else about it right away.”
Children must be told that sexual abuse should never be kept a secret. The child should have a list of relatives, neighbors, friends, rape crisis center hotlines and other community resources to contact if it should happen and you are not around.
Incest is the worst kind of sexual abuse because the child is dependent upon the abuser for love and protection and there is a terrible conflict of emotions when a parent is involved. Studies have shown that incest is often generational. In many cases, both father and mother had been sexually abused as children and their abused child grows into an abusing parent; or marries a sexual abuser and becomes a tacit accomplice. Certainly those who are child sexual abusers must undergo intensive therapy with specially-trained therapists. The therapy should extend to the entire family to be of benefit to the child.
It is most important to help children who have been the victims of abuse, to prevent them from blaming themselves and growing up with shame and secrets. In addition to offering understanding and support, if you know or suspect a case of child sexual abuse, phone 1-800-342-3720 and report it. You need not give your name; and your intervention may save not just one child but the next generation of children from being victims of dark secrets that are not their own.
ORALEE WACHTER is the author of the bestseller. “No More Secrets For Me” and producer of the film “No More Secrets” and training film “Talking Helps” – all on preventing child sexual abuse. She is president of O.D.N. Productions, a NY-based film company, specializing in women’s issues films such as acquaintance rape, domestic violence and teenage pregnancy, and a special series of acquaintance rape for the deaf, performed by deaf actors using sign language. For information: 212/431-8923