Margaret Hoelzer is a two-time U.S. Olympic athlete in swimming, and a child sexual abuse survivor.
I was in the audience as she spoke to a group of child advocates – professionals who, like our employees at Child Enrichment, work with child victims of abuse every day. Margaret informed us and motivated us in many ways that day, but one particular thing she said has really bothered me, and I can’t shake it, because I too cannot understand. She asked, “Why is child sexual abuse awareness stuck in the 1950s?”
She already had spoken about her abuse and how well her family handled it, and how a grand jury chose not to bring charges against the alleged perpetrator, and how difficult it was to deal with all of the stigma and pressure – besides the abuse.
“How can you do something like that to a child and have nothing happen? No community service. No fine. Nothing?” Margaret asked. “Now that I’m older … I realize that’s not how it is. A lack of evidence is just a lack of evidence.”
Margaret turned her experience into motivation. She told us about standing on the pool’s edge, looking down the line of competitors whom she would swim against in a minute, and she said to herself: None of these people are as strong as I, none survived what I survived! And she won almost every time she raced.
Then she told us about her grandmother who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1950s, and who died of the disease at a young age. Her grandmother couldn’t talk about it to anyone. Even conversations with her doctor and her husband were short and not repeated. She was alone with her cancer – just like most of the child victims of sexual abuse are alone with their abuse and torture.
“Why?” Margaret asked. “How long will it take for child sexual abuse awareness to get to where breast cancer awareness is today? Will it take six decades? Will we ever have an awareness campaign with ribbons and with men and women talking about child sexual abuse with the goal of eradicating it?” Other than her parents, Margaret Hoelzer never told anyone about her abuse. After setting world records and winning Olympic medals, she thought, I need to tell about this. Maybe it will help a child recover, or prevent another victim.
She also wondered: What if no one cares? Margaret told us, “I’ve learned what sexual abuse does. It undermines people’s value. It undermines self-confidence. It just attacked my self-esteem. My first lesson, that not all people are good, that adults don’t always have your best interests at heart? Yeah, I learned that at 5 years old.”
So how long will it take for child sexual abuse to achieve a level of awareness and prevention efforts such as breast cancer?
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