Recently, I wrote an article on child advocacy. In that article, I listed all the atrocities visited upon our children by people entrusted with their welfare. While it is difficult to review such a list and try to decide which atrocity is possibly worse than the other, I think we can all agree that sexual predation and abuse of children is egregious. To be clear, when I say “children”, I am referring to all human beings under the age of 18. One’s passage through puberty does not signify – nor should it ever – be used to define one’s arrival at adulthood. With child sexual abuse being as pervasive as it is, I think it is important for children and families to have a clear understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse, who the predators are, how they operate, and how children and families can protect themselves from this scourge on society.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child sexual abuse as the involvement of a child in sexual activity he or she cannot fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or is not developmentally prepared to consent to and being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the perpetrator. It is inclusive of, but not limited to, inducement or coercion of a child to engage in sexual activity, the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other sexual activities, and the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance or materials. Child sexual abuse, then, runs the gamut from inappropriate jokes about their private parts that they do not fully understand, to exposing them to pornographic images and innuendo, to physical sexual acts.
Worldwide, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18 and most times the predator is not the proverbial “boogey man”. Ninety percent of predators are relatives or acquaintances of their victim – neighbors, family friends, teachers, coaches, pastors. On the surface, they are charming, warm, caring, unassuming and respectful. They rarely employ physical force or violence, preferring to manipulate the child’s trust and affection. After gaining a child’s trust and affection, perpetrators usually engage the child in a gradual process of sexualizing the relationship over time – a process known as grooming.
Predators are skilled at planning and executing strategies that involve them in the lives of children and are very deliberate in the selection of their prey. Early in the grooming process, predators try to determine whether the child comes from a stable home environment or if the child’s family is having challenges like divorce, foster care, illness, drug abuse or homelessness. Children lacking stability at home are at higher risk for sexual abuse since there is usually more access to the child and more opportunities to abuse them. Child sexual abusers will also target children who are loners, who look troubled, neglected, or who have poor self-esteem. Adolescents who smoke, vape, or use drugs and alcohol are viewed as risk seekers who lack adequate supervision, making them easy targets. Single parents are also often targeted, since they are likely to need help with parenting duties and often view offers of help with babysitting, school pick-ups and drop offs, lessons, and activities with relief rather than trepidation.
With the pervasiveness of this depravity, what can parents do to prevent their children from becoming a victim? Talk about their body parts early and often. Give them the correct anatomical names – penis, vagina, anus – and teach them that these are private! Teach them body boundaries. Tell your child that no one should touch their private parts and that no one should ask them to touch somebody else’s private parts. Let them know that body secrets are not OK, and if anyone asks them to keep a secret about their body, the first thing they should do is let the perpetrator know that they were told not to keep secrets. Teach your child how to get out of scary or uncomfortable situations. If someone makes an inappropriate or suggestive joke, tell them to have the person explain why it’s funny. Let your child know that some inappropriate touches and tickles may actually feel good, but all touches that have to be kept secret are bad. Let your child know that they have your support and will not get into trouble for being targeted by an abuser.
Don’t assume that because your child is older or an adolescent, their risk of being the victim of sexual abuse is diminished. Reinforce what constitutes appropriate conversation and touching between themselves and others. Remind them of the importance of not keeping secrets about their bodies even though they are older. Most importantly, reassure them that they can come to you to discuss any situation they have become involved in whether they were made to feel complicit or not.
The fact is, it’s difficult to fully prevent the risk of your child being sexually abused. We have to allow our children to go out into the world and interact with those around them. Fortunately, we can equip them with knowledge that may save them from being victimized. Remember, your pediatrician is a valuable resource for helping you raise happy and healthy kids. If you need help with strategies to empower your kids against sexual predators, don’t hesitate to reach out for advice.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in New Providence, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram@mykidsdoc242.