This post is my contribution to Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. Kudos to the amazing people working towards this for the second year running.
He grabs her by the wrist, the grip firm yet cajoling. The alcohol on his breath hangs like vapour between them as he pushes her against the wall with his hips. His daring stuns her because her parents are in the next room along with so many in her extended family. Trapped between a wall and the arousal of an over-friendly “uncle”.
Years later, she recounted the incident to me, her narrative punctuated with wry laughter. It was like one of those awful, trashy romance novels, she said, his hardness against you and that sort of tripe. Only there is nothing romantic about being felt up and violated by someone you trust, someone your family trusts, is there?
Too many of us know this story too well. Too many have known the mortification of unwanted hands going where none had gone before. Too many of us were still children, young boys and girls. Not so young that this was incomprehensible, but not old enough to understand what it would do to us. How it would change us. How we would always view trust through a tainted lens.
When we talk about child sexual abuse, much is said about guilt and shame. You could almost be fooled into believing that this a default emotional setting for a victim. I know many people who genuinely felt guilty, ashamed and confused. I would not dream of telling them that their reactions were not legitimate. Yet the way these words dominate the discourse have made me suspicious.
Nobody talks about power. Cognizance of sexual power. This contrasts with so many of the anecdotes that I have personally been privy to.
I know it sounds all wrong. Talk of power does not fit in with the discourse of victimhood. Abuse has victims; it has desperation, humiliation and abiding shame. Depending on the degree of abuse you’ve been subjected to, at some stage, you can go through all or some of this. You may feel angered, overwhelmed and incapacitated by what you have been through. Because these are accepted feelings, it’s easier to sympathize. It’s easier to talk about. People abstain from talking about power because it immediately conjures up images of a Lolita-like vixen, highly aware of her charms and willing to tempt, to use them. Talking about power carries the risk to being stigmatized for being complicit in the act. That is not what I’m talking about here.
A dear friend went through years of sustained abuse from the age of ten and I can never forget her angry, tear-ravaged face hardening as she said this. “The worst part was that it was so easy. I turned them on just by being there. My physical presence was enough. My loathing meant nothing. I had breasts, a butt, chunky thighs. That was pretty much all it took. These men couldn’t have cared less that I hated them.”
Far too young to have learnt how to bat her eyes, sway her hips or be suggestive or seductive in any way, she had already felt, on her skin, the power of her physical being. Something she couldn’t understand about herself unleashed beasts in men.
She, like many others, saw her power up close and personal. In their grip. Crushed under their weight. In her case, she recoiled from that sense of power just as surely as she recoiled from her physical self.
And that is just one of the ways this cookie can crumble.
With every violation, every unwanted, unprovoked reaction, every “innocent” hug that somehow ends with their hands wandering on to your ass, every unwelcome hand wandering up your thigh as you sleep, you know that there is something about you that reduces them. Your power is reflected in their depravity. Their abject, pitiful depravity. You straddle that terrible, endless path between power and powerlessness.
Nobody talks about contempt. Contempt that swells in your throat, threatening to suffocate you. Contempt at the ease of lust. Quietly-cloaked contempt that can colour significant relationships in your future, making a mockery of trust and fidelity. Contempt, an excellent companion on a self-destructive path.
Someday, if you are very blessed, someone will touch you with devotion, tenderness and such obvious goodness that you will allow yourself to begin the journey of letting it go and stop peeling scabs off your self-inflicted wounds. (Pretty huge “if”, that.)
What a wonderful world it would be, if we could take for granted, our child’s safety. Realistically though, the odds are stacked against us. Depravity is often unmatched in cunning and I doubt my ability to protect my own children a 100%. We can and should talk about preventing it, but it becomes just as important to widen the discourse to talk about dealing with that reality we don’t want to imagine.
I will not curtail their lives to support my fear. I will not deny my boys sleepovers, camping trips or impromptu visits to their friends. I can try and limit the risks every way I can, but I have to acknowledge that it just might not stretch. If paranoid, protective hovering was the solution, many of us should have been completely safe with over-protective parents. Yet, we weren’t. There are some days when I look at their beautiful open faces, their lanky, tanned bodies and it breaks my heart that I can never fully protect them. Body or soul. But I won’t curb their life trying to.
We can talk to them. We should also shut up much more and just listen to them. We can start early to teach them about their body’s integrity – not just by talking about “good touch” and “bad touch”, but by honouring their bodies. Not raising our hands to punish them, not force-feeding them, teaching them to care for their own bodies and care for themselves. Telling them every single day that they are loved. That they are important and smart. That they are better than all the horrors out there.
Ensuring that our actions match our words, because children – they are known for their superior I-see-right-through-your-bullshit skills.
Your 5 or 6 year old will probably tell you about a perceived transgression. It is unrealistic to expect a 11 year old or a 12 year old to do the same. Not because they do not love you or trust you, but because they are learning to be private, learning to have a life that needs to be separate from yours one day. Their secrets, good and bad, for better or worse, will be theirs. They are more likely to tell a friend or sibling than tell a parent. The only thing a parent can do, IMHO, is to prepare for the worst, despite doing one’s best. Practice, every single day, the Art of Not Overreacting in an Inappropriate, Dramatic and Uncomforting Manner. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will make a child clam up faster than an over the top reaction. Be the adult, wail in the closet for heavens sake if you must, but be the adult. Be genuine, be open, keep it real and be the adult providing comfort. It is not your child’s job to comfort you.
Screw the usual taboos. Acknowledge a precocious child. Acknowledge that some children develop early in terms of being sexual beings. Acknowleding is not active encouragement; it is positive, quiet acceptance. Yes, it was just yesterday your little girl was in frills and ribbons and now – not so much. There is nothing freakish about a pre-teen feeling sexual. It’s not because of any particular T.V. channel you exposed them to. It is nothing you did wrong. It has been this way since the beginning of time. It’s not abnormal just because it makes you uncomfortable. Acknowledge all of your child, as hard as it is going to be. I can’t help but believe that children who know that their parents see them for who they are and love them for it, will have a lower threshold for coming forth with something uncomfortable or painful. Denying them their burgeoning sexuality, because of your own hang-ups, will bring you no closer to them, now or later.
Enjoy your body. Teach them to love theirs. Use it, be happy about it, dress it up, flaunt it, dance, sing with all your body, go climbing, swim, run, walk, teach it to be strong. Teach it self-defence. Kiss and hug often if it comes naturally to you. Inhibition never kept anyone safe – just miserable. Your child may have an inborn sense of his/her body, a joy in physical expression. It will never hurt to reinforce it with your enjoyment of this spectacular instrument you own. If you truly love your own body, respecting it will come naturally.
Openness can never protect your child from an unwelcome experience but our openness, understanding and acceptance will remain the main keys by which they process and understand difficult situations in their lives. Sometimes it will not take more than a few simple sentences.
It wasn’t you. It was never you. You are wonderful. You always will be.