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Protecting Innocence

We're all responsible to stop child sexual abuse

The first-grader swung her lunchbox as she strolled toward school. She chose her usual shortcut, a dirt path through 50 feet of forest before an open field. Suddenly, a strange man stepped from behind a pine tree, blocking her path.

"Come with me," he said, looming above her. "I'll give you some nice toys. Then you can go to school."

Utterly naïve as well as petrified, she followed him. The man led her to an empty unit in a nearby abandoned apartment building. "Take off your pants and underwear," he ordered, and he lay down on his back to wait.

As she nervously fiddled with the button on her pants, the man abruptly announced, "You can go to school now." The girl fled the building and sprinted the mile to school, chest pounding.

This story is mine, and I have thanked God countless times that a stranger stopped before violating me. I nearly became one of an estimated 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in our country. As many as one in three girls and one in seven boys in the United States is sexually abused before age 18.

Children in Danger

Why have we been unable to stop this epidemic of abuse? Why are American children safer on an airplane than in their own homes? Why are so many young children, prime targets for active abusers, so unaware of the dangers?

Many experts recommend parents drown-proof toddlers around age 2. I don't mean to suggest abuse-proofing toddlers. But what would happen if parents, caregivers, schools, and churches raised awareness in the minds of young children much earlier—before our children were wounded?

As a young child, I had never heard of abuse. I hid my narrow escape, silently accepting my teacher's scolding for tardiness. At home, I told my mother a stranger had made me follow him, omitting the frightening details.

Whether at the hands of a stranger, a neighbor, or a trusted family member, mere minutes of abuse inflict wounds that leave scars for a lifetime. Consider the research. Guilt is almost universal among abuse victims. Many children keep their abuse a secret. But as long as the secret is kept, fear, suffering, and psychological distress will, like the secret, remain with the victim.

I escaped without harm. But child victims struggle to develop healthy self-esteem, positive feelings about sexuality, and trusting relationships. They are more likely to struggle with pornography or sex addictions. They may battle with substance abuse, eating disorders, and even prostitution. Nearly 6 in 10 prostituting men and women reported being sexually abused as a child, in a 1998 study by psychologist and prostitution researcher Melissa Farley.

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