Could you tell a stranger about your last sexual encounter? Well, this is exactly what we expect children who have been sexually abused to do. Once (and if) they find the enormous amount of courage to tell a trusted adult such as a parent or teacher), they will then be expected to relate the sexual abuse to the police. Could you do that,and would a child even have the vocabulary to do this?
Many people uneducated in Body Safety Education often ask me, ‘Why don’t children just tell if they are being sexually abused?’ In Australia, a very prominent radio shock jock, John Laws, insensitively brought to tears a brave 80-year-old survivor who phoned in to tell his story of sexual abuse as a child. The poor man was bullied by Laws and basically told to just get over it. This kind of uneducated and insensitive reaction certainly does not help survivors to come forward.
Let’s take a closer look at why children don’t and often can’t tell. There are a multiple of complex reasons why not but here is what I know.
- As stated previously, most children don’t have the actual vocabulary to tell what has happened to them. If uneducated in Body Safety, they won’t know the correct names for their body parts and will not be able to express exactly what happened to them.
- The perpetrator has told them no-one will believe them. End of story. And the child is so unempowered he or she believes the abuser without question.
- The perpetrator has threatened the child with horrific consequences if they tell, such as killing their pet, killing their parents, abusing their sibling, that they will be responsible for breaking up the family, etc. The list of terrifying threats is cruel and endless.
- Most adults will not believe a child’s disclosure. A child has to tell three adults before they are believed. (Aust. Childhood Foundation, 2010)
- The child is embarrassed because they think they are willing participant in the abuse and the perpetrator will only be encouraging this perspective, especially if the child’s body reacted to the sexual touch. The child, sadly, believes the abuse to be their fault. (Note: tragically, many adult survivors still believe this.)
- And if the child is brave enough to tell an adult that they are being sexually abused, and that adult does not believe them, than chances are the child will never tell again.
- The abuser has told the child that the sexual touch is loved-based and that this is what you do when you love someone. They may even show their victim child exploitation material to prove that this kind of sexual touch is normal between children and adults. A child, uneducated in Body Safety, has no idea that the sexual abuse is wrong.
- What we’re asking a child to do is to tell a stranger about their last sexual encounter. Could you do that? It takes an incredible amount of bravery to disclose. Adults find it difficult. How would it be for a child?
The bottom line is there are many complex reasons why a child or adult may never disclose sexual abuse. My advice to educators, parents and carers is to educate your child in Body Safety Education from a very young age. An educated child will know from the first inappropriate touch that it is wrong, tell a trusted adult straight away, and keep on telling until they are believed. By educating yourself and your community, the path of a child’s life may literally depend upon it.