The Importance of Sexual Health Education in Abuse Prevention
Growing up, I resented my mother for how protective she was of me. Sleepovers were basically a sin in our household. I rarely got to hang out with my friends and most of the time when I was invited to a function, I almost always had to regretfully decline my presence. If I showed any interest in being someone’s friend and my mother determined that they weren’t good company for me, she would keep even closer to my side.
I would retaliate by saying that she was being unfair. How could she make such assumptions about someone without even getting to know them? “Mother’s intuition,” she would say, rather matter-of-fact. I felt like getting a hold of that intuition and squashing it to death because it was ruining my social life. It was embarrassing that at 16 I still had to ask my mother if I could sit with my friends during church potluck.
By the time I was 18 and away in college, there was little my mom could say. She could no longer choose my friends for me, I could accept any invitation to go wherever I wanted, and I could wear whatever I wanted. She had reached the limit of parental authority in my life.
Years later when I became a parent, I instantly wanted to protect my son from all the cruelties of this world — secondhand smoke, sunburns and mosquito bites. Overnight it seemed I had become an overprotective mother, just like mine was. But as I worried about car seat safety and the best baby monitors, my biggest concern was: how am I going to talk to my kid about sexual health?
I don’t remember hearing any stories about rape or sexual impropriety growing up. In fact, sex was kind of a taboo topic in my family. Up until my late teens, I was pretty oblivious to how this sex thing worked, or what defined as harassment or rape. I was 18 when I learned what a condom was as part of a social studies project I worked on my last year of high school — I was homeschooled and it wasn’t formal at all.
But as naïve as I was, it didn’t take a school book to teach me the anatomy of sex. We are sexual beings, of course, and I got a sense from the way my mom protected me, especially from boys and men, sex was probably used to carry out evil agendas beyond what my innocent mind could have imagined.
I was six years old. Dressed in our Saturday best, my parents and I went to church. After the main service finished, the fellowship hall bustled with restless children and hungry adults. My mom jumped right into the chaos happening in the kitchen, helping warm up and set out dishes church members had brought. Between her going back and forth I had asked her for permission to do something. I don’t remember exactly what, but what I do remember is that mom told me no and I was upset.
Typical of the drama queen that I was, I stormed off and snuck into the church’s kindergarten classroom. Kids weren’t supposed to be in the classroom without the teacher there, but I didn’t care. The doors should’ve been locked. I just wanted to be alone.
Except for the small window in the door that let in some light, it was dark in the room. My six-year-old self figured my mom would come looking for me, but before she came looking, someone else did. I don’t remember his name, but his parents were close friends with my parents. They were leaders and heavily active in our church, like my parents were. He was around my older brother’s age, Caucasian with a pimply face. He asked me what was wrong and said that he’d play with me to make me feel better.
The moments that followed flash by really fast in my mind: me sitting on his lap, him hugging me closely, giving me kisses on my cheek that moved closer to my mouth every time he leaned in. Right then, my mama bear showed up. I didn’t understand the alarmed look on her face at the time, but now I know why.
My mom took ey by the arm and we walked to the fellowship hall. I don’t remember her asking me any questions, but she probably did. The incident was never talked about and I don’t have any memories of that teenage boy after that. It was her intuition that saved me from a host of what-ifs that I shudder at the thought. What’s even scarier was that it was happening in a place that was supposed to be safe for all who enter.
The ugly truth is that it’s impossible to keep our kids 100% out of danger’s way. Whether it’s physical harm or a high fever, we can’t pick and choose everything that will happen to them. It makes me angry because no child deserves to have their innocence preyed on and violated.
According to the statistics, 1 in every 4 girls and 1 in every 6 boys is a victim of sexual abuse. In 2010, reports showed that 20% of adult females and about 10% of adult males remember sexual assault or abuse incidents in their childhood. When these incidents are put into numbers you realize that this happens a lot more often than most of us imagine. We come in contact with the people who represent these numbers on a daily basis, many of whom we are personally connected to. These statistics to me mean that if I narrowly escaped as a child, the chances are pretty high that my son or any future kids I may have might not.
Researchers in 2012 reported that rates of reported sexual abuse in the United States have decreased over the past two decades. They attribute this progress to efforts made in educating our kids and awareness, which have resulted in children’s willingness to report abuse. Yet the numbers are not any less daunting. There’s still a real problem and it doesn’t seem like it’s going away any time soon. Then again, is it realistic to hope that one day the problem will forever be eradicated from our histories?
In recent years, some states have mandated that school districts implement programs that teach kids about prevention, and various communities have introduced institutions to serve the youth that live there. The system isn’t perfect yet, but positive advancements have also been seen in the way law enforcement handles the perpetrators of such crimes. But these are only pieces to the overall puzzle. The real prevention and intervention starts at home and in our families.
As parents and adults, it is our responsibility to keep kids safe. Part of that responsibility is teaching them about their bodies and how to care for it, but more importantly about sexual health and safety. Predators don’t care what age their victims are, and if we don’t share age appropriate information so that our kids are aware, someone else will teach them and it won’t be appropriate.
With all the media exposure of today, it’s surprising to me how sex is still very much a taboo subject for many people. With all our knowledge and advanced degrees we still don’t know how to talk to our kids about healthy relationships and sexual violence. We teach them unofficial names for their private parts — which is the first thing that the National Child Traumatic Stress Network advises against. In fact, in our apprehension we potentially set up our kids to be prime targets for offenders to attack.
I’m guilty of making the mistake of teaching my son that his penis is a “pee-pee.” Before learning more about sexual violence, I thought it was okay and that it was inappropriate for a child to say “penis” or “vagina.” My way of thinking changed after being separated from my son over an extended period of time. I worried myself sick about his safety in my absence. He will soon be celebrating his fifth birthday, in school, and now that he’s back home I want to make sure that I do everything in my power to keep him safe. I decided I needed to get over whatever awkward feelings I had and take that first step in protecting him from abuse: educate.
One evening as my son was taking a bath, I decided to teach him the proper name of his private parts. He thought about it for a second, then shrugged his shoulders and continued playing with his bath toys. Confused, I said, “Okay?”
“Okay, Mommy.” I was shocked by how easy that 30-second conversation was.
Over time, we need to impart to our children the same knowledge we use to keep ourselves safe, but at age-appropriate levels. Knowledge is only powerful when it’s used and shared. Kids need to see from us what healthy relationships look like and to be told that it’s more than okay to say “no” when they don’t want to be touched.
There’s a cultural norm here in America that says, “Strangers are danger.” This can ultimately be confusing to a child because we adults interact with strangers all the time. Teaching children to avoid people they don’t know isn’t going to make them safer — knowing the signs of inappropriate sexual behavior is. As one report shows, many abusers are people who our children know and trust — members within our families, church members, and community.
Though technology has definitely been a means to increase awareness on this issue, it has also contributed to the problem. Not only is sexually self-destructive content much more easily accessible to kids, it also makes it easier for offenders to find victims. Adults in the home need to be proactive in regulating their kids’ internet usage — like installing filters — and provide healthier entertainment alternatives.
I think it’s also important to point out that sexual abuse is more pervasive in some cultures or groups. The recent Duggar scandal is an example of this. I come from an ultra-conservative Christian background and I know from firsthand experience the destructive results of the church’s overall silence about sex-related topics. The majority of the kids I knew growing up struggled with sexual confusion, were raped, or coerced into doing things that they were uncomfortable with. A lot of us experienced these things well into our early adulthood, leaving us in search of healing and acceptance. I keep thinking, “It’s not supposed to be this way. If only someone had seen the signs. If only someone had given us a voice.”
If you’re not sure how to have “the talk” with your kids, ironically (see two paragraphs above) the internet is loaded with free information. A simple Google search can lead you to links where you can download or purchase resources as well. Here are just a few I’ve come across in my search:
Let this serve as a call for us all to do better by our kids. Let’s make it our priority to sit down with our kids and have the necessary conversations today. Let’s be diligent about creating environments in which our kids can comfortably come forward when there’s something bothering them. Let’s take them seriously when they do and be present to help them. If we do this, we can break a cycle that has gone on for too long.