I was enormously gratified last year to watch as the #MeToo movement erupted with a sudden and powerful force, to see sexual harassment and assault survivors courageously tell their truths as the world finally paid proper attention. I cheered the brave women and men who came forward, risking more of the judgment, doubt, and scorn they had likely already experienced. I felt hugely gratified to witness perpetrators of abuse finally being called out and made to answer for their crimes. Most of all, I cried tears of joy to know that – at last – our society is shining a ray of light on the dark, hidden, shame-filled world of sexual victimization, for illumination is the only sure path to the prevention of sexual abuse, as well as justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators.
I, too am a survivor, not of assault or harassment but of child sexual abuse. In the midst of this exciting and long overdue change in collective attitudes, I can’t help but feel that child sexual abuse is being somewhat left behind, a sort of neglected little sister of the #MeToo movement. While the subject has shared some of the attention and victims have been emboldened to speak out more, there is still much work to do before we fully acknowledge and address the dangers and damaging effects of child victimization.
Child sexual abuse is upsetting to think about. Naturally, most of us would rather not contemplate the violation of vulnerable children or the ruthless perpetrators who live in our midst and commit these pernicious crimes. Yet, the data tells us that child sexual abuse happens all around us on a daily basis, and it is generally perpetrated by seemingly normal, pleasant adults whom victims know – and often trust.
It’s a topic that is fraught with cultural taboos and elicits embarrassment and shame. Just as many, if not most women have their own painful #MeToo stories, a large number of us have been affected in some way by the crossing of sexual boundaries during our childhoods. Even if we were not afflicted, chances are pretty good that someone in our lives was.
The only way for us as a society to effectively address the epidemic of child sexual abuse is to look directly at the problem in all of its frightening and tragic reality. As responsible adults and citizens, each of us needs to do our part; from educating ourselves and our children on warning signs and body safety to alerting authorities about potential signs of abuse.
I use the phrase “neglected little sister” because, while it is important to recognize that males and females alike are subject to sexual abuse, the vast majority of victims who speak out against sexual assault, harassment and abuse have been women. I have a more personal reason as well. I was six or seven years old when my older brother began sexually abusing me. The grownups in my world did not protect me, nor did my older siblings, even though all the signs were present.
When I was in my early twenties, I first opened up to my family about the abuse. At first, they believed me and said they were sorry about what I had been through. It was not long, though, before I began to feel as though nothing had changed. No one wanted to talk about it. My family members still lavished the offending brother with adoration and attention. When I expressed my anger at him for the abuse and described the grueling emotional work I was doing to heal from the trauma, he insulted me and cut me out of his life. Over the ensuing years, I pointed out the need for my family members to take precautions with regard to my brother’s safety around minor children but they mostly dismissed my concerns, citing his assertions that he had changed.
I tell my story because I see it as a parallel to the way our culture treats all sexual abuse victims. Too often, we turn a blind eye to dangers and signs, discourage and punish victims for speaking up, shy away from holding abusers accountable, and allow them to maintain their power positions (which often make it easier for them to abuse). In all these ways, we let victims down and allow sexual abuse to perpetuate.
Thankfully, there is reason to believe this destructive pattern may be starting to change. The media coverage of Larry Nassar’s crimes against US Gymnasts felt different as it captured the powerful voices of the gymnasts and drew attention to the injustice of their ordeals. As these brave women spoke about their abuse, they made it clear that US Gymnastics and the National Olympic Committee had failed to protect them by turning a blind eye to evidence, ignoring numerous complaints, and supporting a perpetrator at the expense of their gymnasts’ safety and emotional wellbeing. When this group of survivors won the ESPY Arthur Ashe award for courage, the message was clear that they were wronged by the sports industry, and they were right to speak up. I saw that moment as a welcome shift from our historical tendency to change the subject.
Now, we must keep this momentum going. The world has finally woken up from its slumber of denial and dismissiveness and begun to give weight to the voices of sexual assault and harassment victims; to believe their stories and hold their perpetrators accountable. Potential abusers are finally on notice that they may get called out and face consequences for their crimes. Child sexual abuse deserves at least an equal measure of our attention, given the lifelong damage it creates and the inherent vulnerability of children. We have broken through the silence on sexual harassment and assault. Let’s do the same for child sexual abuse.