How can we prevent and get out ahead of child sexual abuse?
Published: April 24, 2022
By: Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good
As Child Abuse Prevention Month is winding down, we need to be aware that childhood sexual abuse is far more common than most of us realize: one out of three girls and one out of five boys are sexually abused as children, more than 90% of them at the hands of someone they know.
So, how can we prevent and get out ahead of this scourge? It starts by knowing the warning signs of childhood sexual abuse and then empowering the next generation with knowledge and resources to protect themselves and their peers.
Key warning signs of sexual abuse go beyond the physical symptoms of sexually- transmitted infections and signs of trauma to the genital area, such as unexplained bleeding, bruising or blood on the sheets, underwear or other clothing. The behavioral and emotional signs include things such as excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics, keeping secrets, not talking as much as usual, not wanting to be left alone with certain people or even being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior, a regressive behavior or resuming a behavior they had grown out of, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting.
Victims of sexual abuse, especially children, can also exhibit a lack of control, overly-compliant behavior, sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age, a change in eating habits or in mood or personality, such as increased aggression, a decrease in confidence or self-image, excessive worry or fearfulness, a decrease in interest in school activities or friends, as well as self-harming behaviors. They may spend an unusual amount of time alone, have an increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches, have nightmares or fear of being alone at night and will try to avoid removing clothes to change or bathe.
IF YOU OBSERVE THESE WARNING SIGNS IN ANY OF THE CHILDREN IN YOUR CARE OR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE, AND BELIEVE THAT IT COULD BE A RESULT OF SEXUAL ABUSE, YOU SHOULD REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY. YOU CAN REACH OUT TO LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AS WELL AS CALL THE NATIONAL CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE HOTLINE AT 866.FOR.LIGHT (866.367.5444) FOR ADVICE ON NEXT STEPS AND LOCAL RESOURCES.
It’s important to remember that predators can be ANYONE. This includes family members, friends, members of faith communities, coaches, teachers and anyone else with access to a child. Because predators often tell victims to keep abuse a secret, “or else,” you should encourage your kids to understand that they should never keep a secret from you. Remind them that they will never be in trouble for telling you anything.
Teach your children the difference between a secret and a surprise by explaining that a safe adult will never ask a child to keep an unsafe secret. But a surprise is something happy or exciting that everyone will find out about eventually.
Discussing this topic isn’t a one-and-done task. It is important to continually initiate age-appropriate conversations about risk factors, body safety, online dangers and what to do if they or a peer feel unsafe. To help them understand body safety, you will want to use anatomically correct language when teaching children about their off-limit areas. This is important because predators are most likely to use pet names for those areas. An easy way to teach younger children about what areas are not safe for others to touch is to use the term “bathing suit zone.” This helps them understand the areas covered by our bathing suits are off limits to others.
Another thing to emphasize with your children or any of their friends is that if anyone gives them an unsafe, “icky” or scary feeling, no matter what, they should come tell you and you will keep them safe. By talking about these things openly and honestly with your children, you are empowering them to also be advocates for their peers who may not have safe homes or parents. Make sure they know you are happy to serve that role for their friends or classmates, and they are always welcome to speak to you about their concerns.
Because predators have become so sophisticated in their grooming techniques, it bears sharing a word about that as well. Rather than using brute force, most abusers create trust slowly over time, so that the victim does not even realize what is happening until it is too late. Predators use tactics such as friending, romance and showering their victim with elaborate gifts to gain their trust, only to isolate and manipulate them for their own gain. Pointing out these types of behaviors to your children and their peers will help them begin to notice and identify inappropriate relationships.
A final area of advice concerns technology. One out of nine children is approached by a predator on their smart devices. Unbelievably, 1 out of 7 preteens (9-12 year olds) have shared their own nude photos, with 50 percent having sent them to someone they have never met in real life. There are half a million online predators active each day and 89 percent of sexual advances directed at children occur in Internet chatrooms or through instant messaging.
Unbeknownst to you, your child’s cell phone is likely set by default to allow pornography and other explicit content. Even Siri can be a portal to predators and dangerous content on the web. Monitor and set the parental controls on your children’s devices, following these instructions for iPhone or Android. Photos taken and posted can also automatically contain “geotags” which can help predators track and locate your children. You’ll want to be sure you follow these instructions to remove geotag settings. And here’s a helpful guide from Frontier Internet on setting parental controls on video games, browsers and more. We can never be too safe or careful when it comes to protecting our children from both online and any other types of predators.
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good is the co-founder and CEO of The Foundation United, a catalytic platform to end sexual exploitation and trafficking through systemic change. Fisher Good is a passionate pioneer and inspirational thought leader with a desire to expose the root issue behind sex trafficking — childhood sexual abuse. Her book “Groomed” (HarperCollins, 2020) recounts her own story of loss, abuse and triumph. Fisher Good dedicates her life to helping women from all backgrounds discover how to live free from past traumas, strongholds, and lies they may have been groomed to believe about themselves. Statistics and resources quoted above can be accessed at www.thefoundationunited.com/statsandresources.