As you might imagine, our prevention strategy for keeping kids safe is pretty complicated by the fact that we don’t want to talk about this topic. First of all, lots of us are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We blame ourselves and we certainly don't want to discuss childhood sexual abuse because it triggers all sorts of discomfort. Second, we are confused by the fact that sexual abuse perpetrators lie about their actions. We don't want to falsely accuse anyone, and so we are timid when it comes to addressing this issue. Third, we don't trust kids to tell us the truth. And fourth, we don't want to talk to our kids about this at all because we want to preserve their innocence.
But even if we get past these blocks to good communication, our prevention strategy has some significant gaps. One big strategy is don’t talk to strangers (!). You might have heard of this. The trouble with it is that most sexual predators are known to their victims. By most I mean over 75%. So they aren’t strangers at all. They are known to their victims because they spend time currying favor with the parents to get access to the kids.
The first thing I would do to change our strategy of prevention is that I would empower kids to throw fits if they feel threatened. Lots of adults feel kids should never throw fits. Consequently kids throw fits for a short period of time and then even if they are in a situation where a fit might save their lives they don’t do it. This is a mistake. If predators think a kid is going to draw attention to them, they pick another child.
The second thing I would do is let kids know there are bad adults out there. Teach them what dangerous adults act like.
Predators act friendly at first. Their ability to access kids depends on their skill in charming the parents. They use tricks to lure the kids away from the group. They offer to babysit. They might engage in tickling or roughhousing around the adults. They are helpful. They might buy expensive presents for the kid.
This is tricky, because people who are not predators might do some of these behaviors. The best way to tell is that the child the predator is targeting will feel yucky at some point around this person. It is vital that we empower our kids to decide whom they trust. If our kids don’t want to hug someone or be alone with them, those requests must be honored. Our kids need to understand that they have the right to say no to any touch that is uncomfortable and to any association that feels unsafe.
Will the kids test these boundaries? Of course they will. Maybe sometimes they will even say they don't want to be around an adult and it won't be because that adult is untrustworthy. In the long run though, these kids will have a sense of their boundaries which will give them the ability to keep themselves safer than if we teach them to be nice to all the adults.
We need to change our understanding of how to care for children too. If we insist on babysitting teams and don't leave a child alone with a babysitter the predators can't use that method to abuse kids. If we learn to trust our kids and to let them set their own boundaries they will not feel that they have to accept sexual abuse if it happens to them.
This method of prevention is culture changing. It has to be, because we have a culture in which far too many children are being sexually abused.