By Jennifer Falcone, LCSW
I recently participated in a Massachusetts advocacy briefing related to proposed legislation in The Prevention Package, a set of bills aimed at preventing child sexual abuse in Massachusetts schools and youth-serving organizations. During the briefing, participants pondered the innumerous delays and roadblocks faced over the last decade of trying to get commonsense child protective laws through the legislature.
Massachusetts is the only Northeastern state (but one of 23 other states) that does not require sexual abuse prevention training in schools. Our current background checks do a poor job of screening out sexual predators. And did you know that teachers and coaches in 11 states (including Massachusetts) can pursue sexual relationships with teenagers with no legal ramifications? It’s kind of mind-blowing when you think about it. The only reason I can come up with is that we, as a society, are terrified.
Plenty of good reasons exist for this fear. Modern media regularly report the horrible things that happen when predators get ahold of children. However, I believe the most intractable anxieties come from our own personal histories. The numbers from various studies indicate a solid 20 percent of American adults experienced some form of sexual abuse growing up. Those abuses happened during an era when sexual abuse was completely “untalkable.” If it happened to you (as it did to me), odds are you told no one, you buried the effects to the extent possible, and you moved on with your life in any way you could.
Child trauma researcher and expert Dr. Bruce Perry details the significant impact on the brain and body of “adverse childhood events.” Traumas (including child sexual abuse) create insidious and confounding repercussions in the body that last throughout the lifetime. In essence, research shows that the lower unconscious parts of the brain — those that evolved early in our species trajectory to keep us safe from saber-toothed tigers — react immediately to triggering stressors.
Even if the more analytical parts of the brain have a minute to assess the situation as benign, the body has already kicked into fight/flight/or freeze mode. Most of us survived sexual abuse by freezing (a kind of internal flight). So now when we are reminded of what happened to us, we tend to freeze, shutting down psychologically. In doing so we become inadvertent stumbling blocks to progress that would shield kids from sexual predators today.
In my work as a trainer and advocate around the topic of preventing child sexual abuse, I have spoken to workshop attendees crying or angry after the session is over. I’ve watched emotional people close off in front of my eyes. I’ve listened to parents struggle to comprehend how a beloved boyfriend, coach or teacher could have possibly sexually abused their child. I’ve witnessed case after case of individuals in power actively ignoring this issue until legal and professional threats create fears greater than their inherent discomfort. Finally, in my personal experience, I know that telling my story still brings up old feelings of rage, helplessness, confusion and terror. The primal emotions overwhelm. When experienced across a significant percentage of the population, these feelings hinder meaningful change.
Here's the thing: Sexual abuse is almost always preventable, but we have to be willing to pull our heads out of the sand. Unfortunately, buried traumas never really go away. They continue to thrust themselves into our decision-making in undetected ways every single day.
So, if you are someone who truly cares about children and you aren’t fighting to protect them from being sexually abused, you might want to ask yourself “why?” After you take a deep breath, know you can handle today what you were not equipped to tolerate as a kid. Even better, you can use that energy to drive the cultural and legislative shifts we need to protect children now.
Help End Child Sexual Abuse
Being informed is the first step in ending the silence, shame, confusion and denial that have allowed child sexual abuse to occur and even thrive in our homes and communities.
What is Child Sexual Abuse?
To be effective in preventing child sexual abuse, we must have a clear understanding of what it involves. Any sexual activity between an adult and child or adolescent is abusive and illegal. It is an exploitation of power and usually of trust. Sexual activity between two children of significantly unequal power or development can also be abusive.
An estimated one in 10 children is the victim of child sexual abuse today. The average age for reported sexual abuse is 9; 20 percent of victims are even younger. This means that infants, toddlers, young children and teens are all considered at risk.
Visit EnoughAbuse.org for information about how to get involved.
About the Author
Licensed certified social worker and NASW-Massachusetts member Jennifer Falcone enjoys combining her business experience and her passion for protecting and empowering women, children and families. Her professional work has ranged from collaborating with the local business community to address and block human trafficking, to training and advocacy related to the prevention of child sexual abuse in school settings.