TRIGGER WARNING: This article and the pages it links to deals with the topic of child sexual abuse and molestation and describes a sexual abuse incident. This information may be triggering to survivors.
A couple of weeks ago, in partnership with the Family Tree, the Thriving Communities Collaborative (TCC) sponsored an event that focused on child sexual abuse. We reviewed the key signs and indicators that children or teens experiencing abuse may exhibit, and we discussed prevention. We also heard about some of the work that the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC) is doing to prevent child sexual abuse. Thanks to the Family Tree and BCAC for helping us host this event.
Notably, the event we had held the month before this one was on trauma and racism, and it was one of our most well-attended events. Racism is a topic that I think about every day now; it is on many people’s minds these days. Racism is constantly in the headlines, accompanied by videos and/or stories of unarmed black men being executed. Ironically, as a black person growing up in the U.S., for much of my life, one of the topics that I thought about most wasn’t racism, it was abuse, sexual abuse. You see, I was sexually abused when I was five-years-old. That means that most of my life happened in a post-abuse stage, and the reminders were constant — no headlines or videos required.
I don’t doubt that many other victims of child sexual abuse are haunted by their memories. Yet, the group that gathered for this event was much smaller than the group on racism. I hope it was because TCC members were already well versed on this topic, because we, as a community, as a society, need to be working as hard as we can to prevent child sexual abuse. It has devastated so many lives.
ERASING THE STIGMA OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
Many people don’t talk about or admit publicly to being victims of abuse for fear of being judged or labeled. It makes it difficult to accomplish things when you are looked at as a “victim”. Instead of seeing you, people simply see an abuse victim. That’s unfortunate and clearly a part of the problem. It’s why for me, right now, it’s more important to talk about the abuse, because it can be so invisible.
There are times in my life when memories of the abuse loom large and there are other times when I don’t think about it for weeks. It just so happens that during the planning for the TCC child abuse event, I thought about it almost daily, as I did for most of my childhood and well into my thirties. I sometimes wonder how it changed me, how I might have been different if it hadn’t occurred.
WHEN THE ABUSER IS A CHILD
At age five, I was abused by someone who was 12 years old. I was at a friend’s house. There were two other girls there with me, about six or seven years old at the time. We were there with one of the girl’s 12-year-old brother. He asked to play a game. I don’t remember the name of it anymore, but it was played in their mom’s bedroom on her bed while she was away at work. One of the girls would kneel/crouch down in a ball on top of the bed, and the brother would kneel over us. Then a blanket would be thrown on top, and the two other girls would jump on top of the blanket, on top of the two children underneath, attempting to topple them.
I remember saying no, that I didn’t want to play this game, but I was eventually talked into it. That’s typically how it went when I was little. I was usually the younger one in the group, and I usually gave in.
After playing for a while, the friend’s brother asked if he could “get us” or “do it to us” while we were under the blanket. At the time I lived in Englewood, the community in Chicago profiled in Spike Lee’s movie, Chiraq, and sex among children was discussed and engaged in. You knew what “doing it” was by age five.
As usual, at first I said no, I didn’t want to play, but again, after several minutes of discussion, the other girls finally convinced me to play along. And so, when it was my turn, and I was underneath that blanket, things happened — but at age five, I was not sure what was going on. I still am not sure exactly what happened. I just sensed that something occurred, something I should not have allowed.
The three girls got together to discuss it afterward, and I found out that the older girls hadn’t let him pull aside their panties. Apparently, they knew how to say NO when it counted, but I hadn’t. Upon this revelation, I felt betrayed, but it was too late. I knew this was a secret I needed to carry with me always. That’s because I had learned early on, that “good girls” didn’t do this. “Bad girls” did, and I was obsessed with being a “good girl.”
I tried to convince myself for years, that maybe nothing had happened. But years later, when I used my first tampon, I remembered the sensation, and I was able to confirm that in fact, yes, something had happened under those blankets, all those years ago. It’s odd to me that the moment when I had to accept that something actually did happen is as clear to me as the initial abuse incident.
I never told my parents. I’m not sure there was ever any discernable change that they noticed. I thought somehow it would be obvious, that I would be questioned about something. But, I never was. No one asked why I was sad or what was wrong. I continued to excel in school, but this haunted me. I simply know I went to bed almost every night, reliving this event and the accompanying nightmare, that someone would find out that I wasn’t one of the “good girls.”
The abuse only happened once, but it taught me not to trust. That one, single day changed my life, in a very big way, because it made me feel “less than” or “not okay.” I never spoke to anyone else about the event until college, maintaining my silence for over thirteen years.
REALIZING THAT A YOUNG CHILD CANNOT CONSENT TO SEX
For much of my life, because I had consented to the act, I didn’t think of it as abuse. I just thought of it as a bad decision that tortured me. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized that five-year-old children were virtually babies. I finally understood how preposterous the notion of a five-year-old child consenting to sex with someone seven years older was. At age five, I wasn’t old enough to give consent, but at age 12, my abuser was old enough to know better.
Still, to this day, in conversations, people share the point of view that what I described is not abuse because it happened between children and it was consensual. In fact, my abuser, not many years ago asked me to be Facebook friends. It’s illustrative of just how ignorant we are about this kind of abuse. I doubt he even remembers the event. I am sure he doesn’t know how it changed my life. I simply denied his “friend” request.
I tell this story now because I want to let parents know that sometimes there may not be clear or obvious signs that abuse has occurred. Also because some stories may be different from those we are accustomed to hearing. Abuse can happen once, or it can happen repeatedly. Whatever the circumstances, the impact can be life changing and life lasting. There are so many stories, and this is just one. Many stories are much, much worse, and that’s why we have to focus on prevention.
CHANGING THE PARADIGM
It’s so important that we understand that a culture shift is needed to help prevent some types of child sexual abuse. We have to stop stigmatizing people and labeling them as “bad” if they are victims of trauma or make bad choices. This type of stigma is what kept me silent.
We have to stop messaging that it’s desirable for our young boys to engage in sex.
It’s important for people to understand that abuse can be invisible and condoned. Cultural shifts are essential in preventing this type of sexual abuse, and they must be combined with nurturing, loving relationships that encourage open communication channels that enable children to talk about “what happened” and to heal.
So many women, men, teens, and children are victims of sexual abuse. It’s time for all of us to say “Enough already! Enough abuse. Let’s end it!”