This week the Talk early, talk often series continues on the SAAM Blog with a guest post from author and expert Dr. Janet Rosenzweig. Join us on Tueday, April 2 for a twitter chat hosted by @JanetRosenzweig on child sexual abuse prevention. Use the hashtag #TweetAboutIt to participate.
Parents are the strongest influence on their children's decisions about sex and sexuality, yet most parents underestimate their own power. A major national survey reported in 2010 that 46 percent of teens continue to say that parents most influence their decisions about sex, while just 20 percent say friends most influence their decisions. At the same time, parents overestimate the influence media and friends have on their children's decisions about sex and underestimate their own.
The same study tells us that 88 percent of parents agree with the statement that "parents believe they should talk to their kids about sex but often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to start." (Albert 2010)
It's easy to see why: They were raised in the era I've dubbed "The Neutered Nineties". That's when we traded rational discussion about sexuality for Megan's Laws and sex offender registries, in the name of 'prevention.' It's when cash-strapped school districts had to teach abstinence-only topics or lose federal funding. And when answering a question about masturbation at an AIDS conference got the U.S. surgeon general fired. Too many adults stopped talking to kids about sex. Qualified professionals went quiet and left a vacuum too easily filled by people who sexually offend.
Accurate and age-appropriate information about sex disappeared from most professional work in child sexual abuse, and it's time to put it back.
Where to start? With two critical messages for our children:
They need to know accurate names for all their body parts; and
They need to understand that physical sexual arousal is an autonomic response -- like getting goosebumps when tickled.
One now-grown female victim of child sexual abuse I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent told me that good touch-bad touch programs can actually be dangerous to a victim because sometimes the touch actually feels good! Further, men who were victims of sexual abuse report that the confusion resulting from a climax is one of the most difficult issues to resolve.
People who sexually offend exploit children's guilt and their lack of knowledge related to sexuality often try to convince them that they must have actually enjoyed the abuse because of a physical response over which they have no control. Understanding sexual response is important for boys and girls -- people who prey on teen-aged girls exploit the fact that very few girls understand that their physical response to a sexual thought, feeling or touch has absolutely nothing to do with love.
Language and knowledge that parents equip children with are a defense against abuse. Raising a child who knows the parts of his or her body, and knows that it's safe to tell parents or a trusted adult if they have been touched, can prevent their victimization and probably other children's, too. And, if abuse occurs, harm may be mitigated if the child understands their body's response.
For parents who need support as they heed the advice to 'talk early-talk often,' I suggest practicing with friends and getting used to using sexual terms without discomfort. Take turns role-playing, asking each other the kinds of questions you fear getting from your children. Watch this video for ideas and encouragement. This may not be easy at first, but the reward can be lifelong -- a sexually safe and healthy child!
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig worked for the first sexual abuse helpline in the U.S., in Knox County, Tennessee; that project developed into a 5-county treatment program and a national multi-disciplinary training center. She has also managed child sexual abuse programs in Texas and New Jersey, and is the author of The Sex-Wise Parent: The Parent's Guide Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family, and Talking to Kids about Sex, Abuse, and Bullying, (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012). She is currently the national consultant for child sexual abuse prevention programs for Prevent Child Abuse - America, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and a speaker offering keynotes and training nationally.