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.
Whether we are aware or not, we probably all know someone who was abused. My friend Jennifer (a pseudonym) was not as fortunate as me. When she was only 6 or 7, a neighbor started abusing her in the woods behind her house.
"He had porn in front of me while he was abusing me and touching himself. I remember sitting on his lap while he flipped pages," she said. Jennifer's parents paid little attention to her whereabouts, and she never told them.
In the fifth grade, Jennifer chose to follow Jesus. But she struggled with depression, drinking, and suicidal thoughts as a teen and into adulthood. She saw various counselors. In her twenties, she began renting sex-saturated rated-R movies. When she got an Internet connection in her apartment, she gained easy access to online porn, which led to a masturbation addiction.
Today, in her early forties, Jennifer is much healthier. She joined a supportive church and participated in a ministry for Christians seeking healing from sexual brokenness.
Fear Stops Us
The road to freedom can be long and arduous for survivors of child sexual abuse. So why don't more families, churches, and schools warn children about inappropriate touch and teach them how to report it? The simple answer: fear.
We don't want to scare or sexualize them at an innocent age.
My husband teaches elementary school. I harbored hopes that he would discuss abuse with children in his fourth-grade class. Each spring, teachers separate boys and girls for talks about basic sexuality. I urged him to add warnings about sexual abuse.
"I'm afraid parents would get upset," he said.
Fourth grade is too late anyway for children like Jennifer and many others. One in seven children reported as sexually assaulted is under age 6, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Rather than embed fear or sexualize our children, we can convey a positive and effective message. That's what Jodi Jacobsen did in a massive public school campaign. Before the 2010 World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, Jodi and a team of Christians blitzed schools with an abuse-prevention assembly. The dual aim: prevent child trafficking surrounding the World Cup and empower children to help stop childhood sexual abuse.
Their simple curriculum included praising God for making our bodies. They warned children, "Don't let anyone touch your body under where you wear a swimsuit." In an after-school club, each child sketched a picture of someone they could call upon for help.
One young girl drew her teacher and confided that her grandfather was sleeping with her. The abuse was stopped.
What to Do
We can prevent a lifetime of woundedness by taking mere minutes to talk with children we care about in our kitchens, classrooms, and Sunday schools.
If we adults can overcome our deep discomfort and talk openly about abuse, I'm convinced many more children will report abuse or even escape it. Too many have suffered from our natural discomfort to discuss the unthinkable.
Here's what you can do to protect children from sexual abuse:
- Teach which body parts are private. During bath time, identify names of body parts. Or dress your child in a swimsuit and explain that covered parts are not for showing to others. Explain that God made the whole body good but some parts are private.
- Differentiate good and bad touch. Demonstrate affection in positive ways like hugs, kisses, tickles, snuggles, and pats on the back. Most of the time that's fun, but explain it's okay to say, "Stop," "All done," or "That's all" if they don't feel like it. Offer your child alternatives for showing affection to friends and relatives, such as handshakes or high-fives.
- Invite communication. Explain to your children that it's a good thing to tell mom, dad, or someone trusted if anyone touches them in their private areas, or even in other areas if it makes them feel uncomfortable. Assure your children that you won't be angry with them. Affirm that you'll be proud of them for talking about it and you will help them.
- Minimize one-on-one settings with other adults. Make unannounced visits to your children's babysitter, preschool, church group, sports class, and other settings. Make sure there are no areas that are off limits to parents, where children work or play. Ensure there's a plan to avoid having children alone with only one adult leader, even going to the restroom.
- Identify other trusted adults. Children will often tell things to another trusted adult besides their parents. Discuss with your children who else they can talk to if they are scared, uncomfortable, or confused. Consider asking them to draw a picture of that person(s) to reinforce the idea.
- Prevent secrets. Distinguish between a good surprise and a bad secret. Let your children know that no adult should ask them to keep a bad secret from their parents or anyone else.
- Seek help and report concerns immediately. If you suspect abuse of a child, contact a free helpline to share your concerns, find resources, and gain guidance. Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-ACHILD.
Dawn Herzog Jewell is the author of Escaping the Devil's Bedroom: Sex trafficking, global prostitution and the Gospel's transforming power (Monarch, 2008). She is also a freelance writer and publications manager for Media Associates International (MAI), a ministry that equips Christians in publishing around the world. She and her husband live in the Chicago suburbs with their son.