by Jill Tolles, Child Sexual Abuse Survivor and Speaker
Talking about Child Sexual Abuse can feel scary and awkward, particularly for survivors. I know firsthand.
In January of 2016, I broke my own silence in front of 1,400 people in my hometown at a TEDx Event arranged by my colleagues from the University where I teach. For months I debated whether or not I should share my story to members of my own community. What happened afterward was remarkable.
I was overwhelmed by the number of men and women who have approached me since then to share their stories. Leaders, elected officials, prominent businessmen and women, moms and dads, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons have bravely opened up about their babysitters, youth leaders, family members, and teachers who abused them. There is not a week that goes by that someone doesn’t disclose to me, oftentimes someone I have known for years and would have never expected that they too were a survivor. I am touched by their courage and shocked once again at how frequently this occurs and yet we don’t talk about it.
We hear about it in the news constantly… some new outbreak… Ebola… Salmonella, Zika, and more, sending people into a panic around the world. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warnings go out, talk show hosts tell stories, and concerned citizens express their fears in passing. Each of these illnesses can and should raise alarms and protective measures should be taken but sexual abuse has been impacting millions of lives for generations and yet where are the daily headlines on this silent epidemic?
- The chance of contracting E Coli is 1 in 4,100 and Mad Cow Disease is 1 in 10 billion.
- The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday.
Thanks to the work of Erin Merryn, who has advocated that personal body safety should be taught to children in schools nationwide, many legislators, education leaders and parents are starting to take notice and engage in the conversation about preventing child abuse through education. Teaching a child they have the right to be safe and who to go to for help if they are not is a crucial first step. However, we cannot place the responsibility solely in the hands of the child to speak up since predators are master manipulators at feeding on fear and shame and getting children to keep unsafe secrets.
If silence is a predator’s best friend and shame and denial are the ingredients that help this epidemic grow, how can any of us remain silent?
We need more partners throughout the community to take up this issue and recognize that it is every adult’s responsibility to learn first and foremost appropriate ways to relate to a child, depending on the context and relationship, followed by efforts to set up safe environments, spread awareness, and increase reporting and support for victims. Partners can include:
- Businesses that cater to youth – like birthday party venues, skate parks, and pizza parlors who can include abuse prevention in their employee training programs.
- Generous donors who can raise funding for education programs and media campaigns.
- Professional groups who can take up this cause and help break the stigma of talking about this issue by bringing in guest speakers to raise awareness.
- Medical professionals in family medicine, pediatrics, women’s health, and sports medicine who can look for signs and use well visits for education opportunities to teach about prevention.
- Neighbors, book clubs, grandparents, and parent groups who can gather in living rooms to discuss ways to keep kids safe online, at camp, after school, around relatives, and at friend’s houses.
Talking about sexual abuse can save a child in the same way immunizations can prevent disease. We can be heroes by having the courage to have this conversation and celebrate the victory of more safe children and a shift toward safer communities for generations to come.
She serves on the school board of Saint Albert the Great Catholic School, is the chair of the Washoe County School District’s Say Yes for Kids committee, a member of the Senate Task Force for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, and an advocate for education and child protection issues in the state of Nevada. In the 2015 legislative session, Jill worked with legislators to pass a law establishing statewide curriculum standards to help prevent child abuse by teaching personal safety in grades K-12. As a survivor herself, a teacher and a mother, she is deeply passionate about expanding the conversation on this silent epidemic to bring awareness, healing and prevention.
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