April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I know what you might be thinking.
- My children are young, they don’t need to know about this yet!
- I don’t think I need to discuss this topic with my children.
- This doesn’t affect me, I’ve never been in this situation and don’t know anyone that has.
- I live in a nice area of town, this wouldn’t happen here.
Based on the evidence and statistics that are available to us, all of these discussion points that you might try to raise are invalid. Unfortunately, sexual assault can happen at any age, to any gender, in any location, and to more people than you think.
I, myself thought that I would never have to worry about being sexually abused. Growing up in a very strict church atmosphere I was sheltered from a lot of the things happening in the world. We lived in a nice part of town and I hadn’t heard of other people my age being assaulted. I thought I was immune, safe from all the harms of the world.
But I was wrong. In my early 20’s, I was raped. Through no fault of my own, I became a statistic. And try as I might, this has permeated my life ever since (almost 20 years now). It has made me much more aware of how this crime has no socioeconomic, gender, age or background preference. It can literally happen to anyone, anywhere. And I think as concerned and protective parents, i.e. “Mama Bears”, we need to be aware of the facts and learn how to be proactive in protecting our children. And not only in protecting our children, but also raising our children (boys and girls alike) to be respectful of others, as well as themselves.
First, here are some of the glaring facts:
- Every 98 seconds, another person experiences sexual assault. And every 8 minutes, that victim is a child.
- From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.6.
- 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.
- 82% of all victims under 18 are female.
- Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens)
- Both boys and girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Girls are abused three times more often than boys, and boys are more likely to die or be seriously injured by their abuse.
- Children of all ages, from birth to age 17, are sexually abused.
- Adolescents ages 14 to 17 are the most likely to be abused; more than one in four (27.3%) had been sexually victimized during their lifetimes.
- Most perpetrators are adults. Law enforcement reports show that 76.8% of those who perpetrate sexual assaults are adults; 23.2% are juveniles who sexually abuse children, and 19.5% of perpetrators are between the ages of 12-17.
- Children are most often sexually abused by people they know and trust. People who sexually abuse children can be in positions of authority and esteemed by the community. Family members are the perpetrators in 34% of reported cases against juveniles. (http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_media-packet_1.pdf)
Sexual violence effects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. And while we are making progress (the number of assaults has fallen by more than half since 1993), the fact is that only about 6 out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison.
These are awful facts, and unfortunately, this is only from the assaults that are reported. There are so many assaults that go unreported for various reasons. Either the victim is ashamed or doesn’t have a good support system, the victim could be threatened if they report the crime, or a host of other reasons.
This is what happened with me. Because of my strict upbringing, and how I saw that the victims were often shamed and blamed for this crime, I kept silent for several years. I never reported it to police and no one in my family or my friends knew for a very long time. The stigma surrounding sexual assault victims is not always cast in a positive light, and we need to stop that. As parents, especially, we need to have the hard conversations with our children early.
As parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children right from wrong and how to treat people. It can definitely be stressful talking to your children about sexual assault. It’s a very difficult topic to discuss. But if you make it a part of your “normal” safety conversations that we know you’re already having (i.e. speaking up when you see something wrong, “stranger-danger”, listening to your gut, etc.), it will be easier on everyone involved.
Here are some great talking points for having the difficult conversations that need to happen early and often.
Teach young children the language they need to talk about their bodies and information about boundaries to help them understand what is allowed and what is inappropriate.
- Teach children the names of their body parts. When children have the words to describe their body parts, they may find it easier to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
- Some parts of the body are private. Let children know that other people shouldn’t touch or look at them. If a healthcare professional has to examine these parts of the body, be present.
- It’s OK to say “no.” It’s important to let children know they are allowed to say “no” to touches that make them uncomfortable. This message isn’t obvious to children, who are often taught to be obedient and follow the rules. Support your child if they say no, even if it puts you in an uncomfortable position. For example, if your child doesn’t want to hug someone at a family gathering, respect their decision to say “no” to this contact.
- Talk about secrets. Perpetrators will often use secret-keeping to manipulate children. Let children know they can always talk to you, especially if they’ve been told to keep a secret. If they see someone touching another child, they shouldn’t keep this secret, either.
- Reassure them that they won’t get in trouble. Young children often fear getting in trouble or upsetting their parents by talking about their experiences. Be a safe place for your child to share information that they have questions about or that make them uncomfortable. Remind them they won’t be punished for sharing this information with you.
- Show them what it looks like to do the right thing. It could be as simple as helping an elderly person get off a bus or picking up change that someone has dropped. When you model helping behavior, it signals to your child that this is a normal, positive way to behave.
- When they come to you, make time for them. If your kid comes to you with something they feel is important, take the time to listen. Give them your undivided attention, and let them know you take their concerns seriously. They may be more likely to come to you in the future if they know their voice will be heard.
Continue these conversations as your children become teenagers.
- Use the media to make it relevant. Ask your teen’s opinion on something on social media, in the news, in a new movie, or on a popular TV show. Asking their opinion shows them that you value their point of view and opens up the door for more conversation.
- Use your own experience to tell a safety story. Sharing your own experiences can make these conversations relevant. If you don’t have an experience you feel comfortable sharing, you can tell a story about someone you know.
- Talk about caring for their friends — not just about their own behavior. Talking about how to be a good friend can be a powerful way of expressing to your teen that you trust them to do the right thing. This also doesn’t sound like you’re targeting their personal behavior. It gives you the chance to communicate safety practices they may not otherwise be receptive to.
- Talk about sexual assault directly. For some teens, safety issues like sexual assault aren’t on the radar. On the other hand, they may have misconceptions about sexual assault they’ve picked up from peers or the media. Bring up statistics that relate to them. Explain that no one “looks like a rapist,” and that seven out of 10 instances of sexual assault are committed by someone known to the victim.(https://www.rainn.org/articles/talking-your-kids-about-sexual-assault)
If you ever need to talk to a professional or get more help, here are some phone numbers to reference:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE (4673)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: 1.877.739.3895
I know these conversations are difficult and certainly not easy. But as parents, these are conversations we need to have. We need to teach our children respect, not only toward others but also for themselves. We need to empower our children to say no and to know themselves. I wish I had those conversations when I was young. Maybe then, I would be able to say that I’m just a staunch advocate for educating our children at a young age. Instead, I’m not only an advocate for education but also a survivor of sexual assault.