Monday, August 22, 2011

Protecting Our Children From Sexual Abuse

i am suffocating here, in suburbia, and even that sentence- itself such a cliche, the 'burdened intellect' or the 'artist hushed by mediocracy' or just 'self indulgent author in a fit frenzy over the bland taste of suburbia'; it's all bullshit and still it's damn true- the feeling at least- the suffocation. The bland vanilla stick coat like pepto bismol poured deep into the gut, so to quiet and stop every last embarrassing burp, fart, grumble that indicates an individual body. An individual life.
i take the trade. i take the four children, my absolutes, and this place that comes with them, due to other biological parents and schools and grandparents; so we are stuck here, so? I can write. I can breathe. The neighborhoods are safe, for the most part. The worst threat is the child molesters that no one believes in, the ones married to your neighbor, or dating the grocer, or smiling at you from the school bus, those men and women ( but mostly men ) who are around and who have secrets so deep that the Pepto-B of suburbia is such! a perfection of disguise. I can think, off hand in this exact moment, of five people who were molested that I know, because I tend to have those kind of conversations with people eventually, and all of them were molested by either a parent, neighbor or some kind of trusted person with children- let's look: a homework tutor a block down, the dad, the step-dad, a father at a sleepover. Still people believe the chances are slim. The chances are slim that the child- yours- will ever let on. That's true. Children can be easily shamed by the all powerful adult. Remember that feeling? I do.
Would you like to see an idea of what happens from the Children's Molestation Research and Prevention Center? No of course not. But here it is:

An estimated one in 20 teenage boys and adult men sexually abuse children, and an estimated one teenage girl or adult woman in every 3,300 females molests children. Although that's well over five million people, most families mistakenly believe that as far as molesters go, there has never been one in their family, and what's more, there never will be. Add together the child victims, the adult survivors, and the abusers, and that's 15 out of every 100 Americans who have been either a molested child or a molester.

What are you thinking when you read that?
I'm thinking, sure. This makes sense in my world. Growing up, I knew so many girls who had been molested or raped that to this day, I don't feel the slightest shock when any woman tells me she was abused as a child. No matter what the woman's accomplishments or successes, her dress or makeup or lack of, her carriage, her position in life or her voice as she tells me: I'm not surprised. That is fucked up. I'd like the world my daughters grow up in, at least starting here, in the U.S., to be a place where that news is saddening and surprising. One of my best friends was raped by a boy at a party. She was drunk and felt so guilty about the entire thing that she never, ever told her parents. Another high school friend was raped by four boys from the football team, at a party. She never told her mother. That same girl gave blow jobs our Junior year to any boy who asked, and ended up in a mental ward in our Senior year after trying to stab her mother.

You might be thinking
Well where the hell did you grow up, Maggie?
Well here, here in middle to upper middle class suburbia, in very nice schools, with money. That's where. The same place where another friend of mine was raped by her stepfather on nights her mom went out for 'girls night'. And my friend M, from down the street was molested by her friend's father, at sleepovers, in the bed in the same room and right next to the bed where her friend slept. She never made a sound, or told anyone until she told me. She also was in the grips of a paralyzing and profound depression by our Junior year. One that mystified her sweet parents.

When the friend's parents divorced and the father moved out of state, my friend's depression began to lift, slowly.

And in my family? Ah. In my family. I cannot express to you how much I hope that each and every one of my children and each and every one of your children gets through their childhood and young adulthood without a sexual predator touching them or making them touch. I can tell you what I am doing to help that wish come true.

When my children are around five I begin to express to them that most of all in life TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. This is something I repeat to my children throughout the year every year I am raising them. Lola just said to me the other day that she had a bad feeling in her stomach about a certain person, and chooses not to be around them. Instead of saying, ' Oh I'm sure Mr. X is perfectly nice, you silly! ' I said ' If that is how you feel, listen to that feeling, it's there for a reason. ' Oprah once said on a show about women being attacked that it greatly upset her how many women, right before being attacked, were most concerned about seeming 'rude'. We have to stop that. We have to be concerned about the real world, not some fantasy life where we say 'Sure mister, you can help me into my apartment with my groceries' and the guy does so and leaves with a smile and nod. I tell this to Lola. I tell her how girls feel like they have to be nice, but that the most important thing is to learn to trust yourself.

When my children are around five, I begin to speak to them about their sexual body, and how no adult or teenager or child should touch them on their vagina, penis, butt, OR - this is important- touch them in any way or on any place that simply makes them feel gross. If, I tell them, someone is touching you and you feel gross, don't you DARE feel bad. ( I really do say this. ) Be glad your body is so smart and telling you something important, and listen to it, and move away, get away from that person, and then tell Mommy or Daddy. Even if they just have their hand on your knee, if you feel gross about it, it's OK to move away, it's OK to say no or stop or just leave. If you need an excuse, say you feel sick to your stomach. I repeat this every year, going into the discussion a bit more with every year.
As they get older, I tell them what sexual predators are like: that they often make children feel guilty or scared in order to keep their secret. I tell them that even if they promise they won't tell, it's OK to tell. Even if the person says they are going to hurt their family, they are a liar, and it's OK to tell. I tell them that people that hurt children are always threatening to hurt their families if they tell, and I've never heard of one time where that happened. It's a lie, and it's meant to keep you quiet. And then I tell them the saddest thing to say. I say that sometimes people who molest children make them feel ashamed by saying that they asked the person to touch them, or that they liked it. And I explain that even if that was true, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, and it's always the adults responsibility to do the right thing no matter what a child does. And then I laugh like that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, that a child would be responsible for a sexual act with an adult, and I roll my eyes. Even though this sounds creepy, it works, because this is how kids think. They aren't all serious about it, they are mildly serious at most, because- hopefully- this is all ideas to them and not real life, and if you put it into their heads that the very idea of adults saying a kid is responsible is ridiculous, with a facial expression and a shake of the head, they will remember that.

After telling Dakota this I remember he said ' Yeah! An adult that would touch a kid like that would just lie lie lie to get what they want, and try to make the kid feel bad. A real adult wouldn't let a kid talk them into shooting their foot with a gun, or anything else stupid. ' Right. Right.
Along with the above discussion, I add on that it is not OK for anyone to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, even if it's Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, or even Mommy or Daddy. It doesn't matter who it is, I say, they don't own you, and it doesn't matter if they are grown up and you are a kid, don't let them make you feel bad, ever, for listening to your body. If a grown up tries to make you feel bad about taking care of yourself, then something is wrong with THEM, NOT YOU. I add that being 'nice' and being a 'good person' are two totally different things. I give them examples. I remember saying to Lola, If a man says hi to you and smiles and listens to you, that's nice, right? But that same man who is nice could later kick his dog. That's not good, is it? A good person isn't always nice, and a nice person isn't always good. The only way to judge people is to know them for a long time. That made perfect sense to her, and it still does. Dakota once told me that sometimes adults are very polite, but when no other adults are around they are mean to some kids. That's not a good person, Mom, even though he's smiling. Right son. We need to help our children learn that anyone can be charming or have manners, and that has nothing to do with if they are a safe person, or a good person.
After all this, I explain how awesome sexuality is, how wonderful it is to be a sexual person and how wonderful it is to be in love and to share your body with someone who loves you and who you love, and how this is part of how we express our spirits. I tell them that because sexuality is so precious to us, it has to be taken care of lovingly and thoughtfully, and that one day they will find it a wonderful part of their life. This is why, I say to them, I am telling you all this. Just like when we go camping and I tell you what to do if you get lost or hurt- not because I think it will happen, it probably won't- but because it's so important that you need to be prepared. I want you to be prepared.
Not scared.
My kids aren't scared, but they are pretty damned informed, and they love their bodies in an unselfconscious and joyful way that makes me so happy. And that is why I make the small, carefully thought out choices I do- like for the most part, no sleepovers until they are early teenagers, and no alone time with adults for the most part, unless we know them very well. Somehow these boundries have been very easy to keep up- when they have tutors, we hire them to come to the house. When they have lessons, they are group or at our house. Of course, this leaves room for things to happen, because life leaves room for things to happen. But I'm leaving that door cracked the bare minimum possible, and the light is on.

Michele R said...

Woe Maggie, this is fantastic. You have helped so many people by writing this. I'm honest and open with my kids but have learned much from your words today. You're an awesome mother and teacher.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Very powerful thoughts on this, Maggie. I love what you say about trusting instincts (and, unfortunately, about how women constantly worry about appearing nice enough).

Wren said...

This was so powerful and so very important. Thank you.

Lora said...

thank you thank you thank you.

This is such a powerful post, and something that hits so close to home. Not because I was ever molested, but because I worked with child molesters and victims on and off during the last 15 years.

And you're right. The suburbs are hit the worst. Lots of places to hide, homes with two working parents, a general attitude that only nice people can afford to live in certain zip codes.

I started the "okay touch, not okay touch" talk with my son before he was two. He's not afraid or hyperaware of child molesters and rapists. He is informed and knows what to do in case anything happens.
He knows it is not his fault and he can tell me, even if his offender tells him that someone will be hurt if he tells.
I told him that molesters are liars, and they are most likely lying when they say that and the police will come get them before they have a chance to hurt anyone.

"Trust your guts", is something we say to one another. So often children are taught not to trust their guts. They are taught to give kisses to relatives and be nice to strangers. Intuition is very real and very strong in our children.

They can trust their guts. Guts don't lie.

Petit fleur said...


This is something that I am passionate to the point of obsessively cautious about.

I don't know a single lady friend that has not been raped or abused by someone at some point in their lives. Usually as children or in college. I've seen the devastation that it causes in every area of their lives long long after the abuse is over. sigh.

It is my worst nightmare, period. I am so ac acutely aware and concerned about this that I really can't see Harley spending the night anywhere, unless it's a camping trip and we are there.

I give him a similar talk as the one you described... and oddly, so does his doctor! I love that. He will say, this is your private area and nobody is to touch you there. I usually follow that up later and clarify, but I think that's awesome.

I'm so glad that you wrote this Maggie, because I am convinced that a lot of this kind of abuse comes from plain ignorance, not stupidity or compliance. We are animals no matter how many gadgets we acquire and animals prey on the weak or defenseless, it's what they do. If we don't watch for them, who will?

Great post Maggie. I love you!

Ms. Moon said...

Yes. I tried very hard with my own children to make them know that their bodies were theirs and no one elses and told them the same things you tell your kids and it was my deepest fear that they would go through what I went through and NO ONE should have to go through that.
Oh, Maggie. You are right and you are brave and you are a good mother.

clearness said...

This is a very powerful post. Hopefully it opens the doors to communication for lots of families this week and keeps them open.

Marion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josey said...

Wow, this is such an amazing post Maggie. I want to save it just to read over and over to remind myself of what to tell my future children.

My parents were very open with us about our bodies and what touches weren't okay, but it wasn't until the summer before i went to college that my Mom told me that she lost her virginity to a date rape in college and had subsequently suppressed that memory for 20 years until she ran into that man again. it all made sense to me then why she had been so depressed during my teenage years. She was just learning how to deal with the fact that she'd be raped. Powerful, awful, stuff.

You are such a wonderful mother.

Vashti said...

Thankyou. x

Anna said...

Thanks for writing this Maggie--very good stuff. My son is only a toddler but I often think about how I'm going to talk to him (and future children) about this very, very important subject. I know these days are just around the corner and I really appreciate your insight. And previous posters are correct-you are BRAVE to have this talk with your kids. It's HARD--so much easier to ignore than take action.

Mel said...

Very important post Maggie. I have made it my mission to pay attention, to be hyper alert to protect my children. The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker - an Oprah guest - really helps identify the types of behaviors molesters and criminals use, and insists that women listen to their intuition. If something doesn't feel right, it isn't. I've tried to teach my kids to be nice but wary, to pay attention, because bad guys look like regular people.

Bad guys often use charm or guilt to get what they want, or suddenly its us and we instead of you and I, they stand too close, or they talk too much, give unsolicited details, or most importantly, don't listen to no the first time. A discounted No is the biggest Red Flag. Gavin says intuition can come through as anxiety, hunches, doubt, hesitation, wonder, suspicion, or even humor, so learning to pay attention to those back of the brain signals can save or change a life. He says when your body feels fear, Listen.

I think the more women talk about these issues, the more we educate our kids, the easier it will be for them to trust their instincts, to stay safe, to yell or kick or run away from whatever comes at them, especially if it turns out to be the nice guy next door. And I hope for luck, every day.

Thanks for writing about this.

Amelia said...

*sigh* I want to save this to read again when I have to start having these conversations with my baby in 2 or 3 years. The thought that I have to makes my heart clench and my mouth not want to form the words, so I'm afraid I won't know what to say. But it needs to be said. Thank you.

Allison the Meep said...

This is so, SO important to talk about with kids. Thank you for writing it, because it just reminds me that I need to have another reminder talk with Julian about this topic.

NodToStyle said...

this gave me chills. so important and so well said.

Elizabeth said...

I have learned so much from you today and am now wondering how and when to bring all of this up with my two sons. I've spoken to them regularly about these things but not nearly at the depth that you have, and I must say that what you say is powerful. Thank you, Maggie -- I know that your wisdom has come at great cost and am grateful that you share it so generously.

susan said...

Awesome words. Ditto on the "Gift of Fear"......a must read for all! I also taught my young children if we are ever separated anywhere to NEVER look for a police (or rent-a-cop found at malls), but look for a Mom with kids because she won't stop until we are reunited.

Amanda said...

This is such an important and wonderful piece of writing. my girls are 4 and 1, and I feel totally paralyzed with fear about this subject. it's so sick and wrong that we need to make our kids aware that these things happen in the world, but we do. Thank you for writing about how you've handled, because I have no idea how I'm going to be brave enough to deal with the subject when the time comes.

Amanda said...

Thank you for this post. It reminded me that I need to start educating Jack more about this. Not because I don't think about it, but because I'm so overprotective as it is that I figured it was enough. That it was enough to trust MY own instincts, but I also need to teach him about his own and how to use them to protect himself.

I hope more people read this. It is so valuable.

Ida Mae said...

i love this, Maggie! So very well thought out and put.

The Empress said...

I'm with you.

I am right there with you.

If we were together, I"d be high fiving you.

I have given my children the talk, on trusting their god given instincts.

To always protect themselves.

My children are not too young to hear this, they are not being raised afraid:

They are being raised AWARE.

Maggie May said...

I'm so glad we can have an open discussion about this. That we talk to our kids.

Caroline said...

Thank you Maggie.Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I have already started the conversation with my 4 and 5 year old. We even use the "What if?" scenario that I find works well. I actually found a course online and printed out the dialogue which helped me open up the conversation. But I like how you point out that you speak to your children about it each year. It's an ongoing conversation--not just a one time talk.

Part of the problem with recognizing molesters is that they are almost always that person that you thought would never do something like that. The cub scout leader, the friendly neighbor offering to babysit. That's why I like SO much that you said "A good person isn't always nice, and a nice person isn't always good. The only way to judge people is to know them for a long time." This is perfect and I am going to start telling my children this too.

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