Child sexual abuse is not something we parents think about on a day-to-day basis and most of us are of the mindset that ‘it won’t happen to my child’.
Sadly, my life’s work and research into sexual harassment among young children show it to be a common occurrence globally; and a phenomenon that occurs across cultural, economic, and ethnic borders; no matter the community within which we live.
Working with kindergarten, pre-primary, primary, and high school students, it is clear to me that most parents today are uninformed about what child sexual harassment is and that there is a dire lack of information made available for those engaged parents who want to protect their child through the school system.
Add to this the myriad of myths and misconceptions about how, who, why, and where child sexual abuse occurs, and we find ourselves standing at the tip of the iceberg of an occurrence which wreaks physical, mental, and emotional suffering for all involved.
Parents may warn their children about the dire consequences of speaking to strangers or accepting lifts from anyone other than friends or family, but it is a statistical fact that sexual harassment and sexually abusive behaviours happen most often by the very family member or friends our children have been told to trust, rather than by an unknown person in the park or public places.
It’s my experience that the most frequent sexual harassment and child abuse occurs during school hours, at aftercare and in sports facilities, and in our homes during times that children are not being monitored. As a doctor in sociology who has developed sexual harassment prevention programmes in schools, I have exposed that at least one in five children are experiencing sexual harassment as we speak.
Abuse in the Shadows and Online
Sexual harassment behaviours and acts of child abuse go unnoticed by caregivers, teachers, and parents; those meant to protect them.
Most often, this is because we, as adults ourselves have been groomed into social and global desensitisation of the real issues and current day behaviours taking place around stereotypes, social equality, and gender violence. Our radars have become desensitised by the daily onslaught of sexualised and patriarchal-style product marketing, and filled with visions in social and mainstream media by twerking tots; teens who spend hours adjusting and selling their looks online, and female bombshell and hunky himbo physiques being used to sell everything from the latest toothpaste to a washing machine.
As adults, we have allowed ourselves to become dulled to recognising sexually abusive behaviours for what they are, and when presented with situational challenges of it, we too often quickly brush it aside as ‘just boys being boys’ or an ‘‘over imagination” on the part of the girl child. Urban lifestyles create an ‘adult’ world all around us where children of any age with access to a Wi-Fi passcode, are met with an instant onslaught of programmatically marketed pornography sites. One can see then how problematic and traumatic it can be for a young child simply searching for a fairy-tale title such as “Puss in Boots” can be served graphic images of female genitalia instead of a fluffy feline character.
As parents, we are already of a generation where we are at risk of being technologically redundant, often unaware of what our young children are viewing when playing what may seem like appropriate video games online, yet which perpetuate a variety of stereotypes from violence to misogyny. Sites such as Steam is just one platform of many others offering a menu of categories including “nudity” and “sexual content” over 780 explicit video games. The media tells us that children as young as age 8 are being prognosed with an addiction to pornography.
Defining Unwanted Touch
Sexually abusive acts toward and between children include sexual assault, rape, incest, online abuse, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children and can be enacted by an adult, older child, or a child of their age. We see the first signs of what is defined as child sexual harassment among young child around the age of 5 years, which usually appears as sexual bullying and assault, physical touching or physical force, sex acts, attempted sex acts, abusive sexual touching, and non-contact assaults such as harassment, threats, and forced exposure.
Remember that child in kindergarten who would always try to pull the other kids’ pants down?
Your child’s experiences of childhood sexual harassment and assault are often not disclosed to either yourself, the teacher, or the over-seeing adults. This is because our young children are developmentally vulnerable and haven’t been educated in the sexual anatomy or language of their body, or know about or understand their Child Rights. Too often, when children do disclose behaviour that makes them uncomfortable, upset, or fearful, the adult – unaware of the core dynamics of play which has crossed the boundary into abuse – sideline, ignore or instruct the child that their feelings are wrong or misplaced. “Don’t be silly, he just wants to be your friend by giving you some attention.”
Children are easily manipulated into feeling guilty or responsible for the abusive act. “Am I not being friendly enough?”. They question themselves and enter into more confusion and doubt about the dynamics taking place both externally on the playground or locker room and internally regarding their emotions, personal voice, and responses to social situations. That children fear disclosure because they will not be believed is a very real scenario. They are also easily let to believe that if they ‘tell’, it will have cause to negatively affect their well-being and that of their families or their social or school standing. Who would willingly expose themselves to more fear and pain of social rejection?
What you can do as a parent
Don’t brush off or avoid sexual harassment and the multi-layered subject of abuse. If you think ‘it won’t’ happen to me’ you are in avoidance for reasons you must possibly examine yourself.
No one can ignore any longer the social phenomena of the #Metoo movement sweeping the globe where social media is becoming a tool for everyday men and women to resisting and exposing adult abusers in positions of power. Understand that psychopathy, bullies, abusers, and misogynists are created on the playground. As children start to understand their bodies as being separate from others at around age 5 years, they start to explore with other children through what starts as innocent games. Children imitate what they see in adults and situations in the world around them. When the line is crossed from an innocent game into behaviours that create a victim and a perpetrator, the child needs to be redirected. Failing to do so creates the adult bully, abuser, and oppressor.
If a child comes to you with a story; don’t dismiss it. Believe everything a child is saying to you. They do not have the depth of imagination or experience of knowledge to make it up and they are telling you for a very real reason. The first being that they are scared, hurt, or confused. I was witness to the tragic events of when an innocent game of ‘doctor doctor’ between two 5-year-old boys saw a pencil inserted into one boy’s urethra. The pain and shock were so great, the child stopped speaking for two years. A simple directive to the boys that ‘our bodies are our own and no one else should touch our sexual organs’ could have saved both young children and their families from the resulting trauma.
As parents, teachers, and caregivers, arm yourself with the facts regarding the laws of your country, the school regulations and steps to reporting sexual harassment and abuse, the level of all the participating teachers understanding and responsibility towards sexual harassment, and most importantly, your own family system of how you share sexual information with your children.
School environments, after-care facilities, and extended family events should be safe environments. Knowledge is key for you as a parent and will enable you to respond appropriately and without inflicting further trauma on those involved should it arise. Through your own enabling, you can proactively ensure your child is knowledgeable in their rights, understands what to do should a confusing or frightening situation occur, and will allow you to rest assured that all adults in contact with your child’s education are equipped to respond and protect your child with accountability and within the parameters of the law.
Do you have questions or concerns about how to talk to your child about sexual abuse? Visit www.voiceofchild.net or speak to me, Dr. Ayelet Giladi on email@example.com