by Jacki Richardson, LCSW
Recently a pagan musician and author was arrested for possession of child pornography. According to most recent reports, he has admitted that he downloaded and shared this material. T. Thorn Coyle has written a blog about Predators in Paganism and initiated a conversation about abuse of power between adults. I wrote this piece in response to the information that this man has been a frequent visitor to pagan festivals, and my thoughts went to the children. Some of the information provided is for parents, as they are the first guardians of their children. However, we all have a responsibility to surround and protect children from predators. The following is an introduction, and by no means the final word on the subject. Blessed be.
Trigger Warning: Please take care of yourself as this is a frank and direct discussion of child sexual abuse prevention.
I have been thinking a lot on how much being a social worker is magickal because in a very real way social workers do “shadow work” on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me in the past, “So how was your day?” Uh, well… most of the time the stories that can be told aren’t really for polite company. Still, social workers spend time asking the difficult questions, looking at examples of incredible abuse and its consequences, and seeking to set people on the path to healing and wholeness afterwards.
While I have moved on from abuse prevention work in the last few years, recent events have prompted the idea that it is necessary to share some things in a way that would be helpful to our community as a whole, regardless of my relatively recent membership. I have spent many years working with the subject of abuse, and one of the most helpful definitions I’ve ever found comes from Mark Lee Robinson of the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution:
“One abuses another when one uses the power one has over the other to meet ones own needs at the expense of the other.”
Rather than get too broad with that definition, by which we all can be abusive, I want to apply this specifically to the area of sexual abusiveness – specifically with regards to children.
Sexual Abuse of Children
There is never a time when an adult can engage in sexual behavior with a child and that behavior be anything but abusive. It disrupts the natural development of a child’s identity, not only as a sexual being, but as a relational and spiritual being, along with whatever other being-ness one would want to apply.
Adults have power that children simply do not have. If you question that, have a child of any age go out and get a job, make equal income, provide their own food, shelter and clothing, and have the emotional maturity to see themselves as separate and equal to adults. It doesn’t happen. Children can have different types of power (ask any sleep-deprived parent of a newborn) but they do not have the same power as adults and therefore they are not equal.
So any sexual activity would by definition be unequal in power and the ability to consent. One time I found myself saying the following to someone (most of you will find this painfully obvious but I will say it anyway): A child can dance in front of you naked and demand you have sex with her or him, and your job, your charge, your responsibility is to say, NO. Period. Most adults would be incredibly shocked if a child did such a thing and would have serious questions about what was going on in that child’s life that has made this possible. That is a healthy response – anything less is not — because no matter what a child does or says, he or she is not looking for sexual activity with an adult in the same manner that an adult is looking for sexual activity in another adult.
At the same time, we don’t want to shame children in their natural development. That is when a good conversation about boundaries and privacy is in order. Something that parents are encouraged to do (and if you are not the parent, you can redirect the child to his or her parent and encourage them to do so) is to say something like: “I understand that feels really good, but that is something that you do in private.”
Children need to be protected because they are oriented to seek adult attention and praise, to feel special, to be loved. It is a part of what has kept human children around long enough to grow up to be adults. So that leads to the next step. How do we protect our children from predators? Here are some principles that we can explain and apply:
1. When an adult makes you feel uncomfortable, it is okay to say NO.
Some people will be uncomfortable with this as an absolute – after all, sometimes relatives or friends will get all “squishy” with a kid who doesn’t like being that close. Is it okay for the kid to say no? I would offer the idea that yes, find a way to smooth over Aunt Susie’s hurt feelings and maybe work with your child to say no politely in those situations. Why? Because kids don’t always know the fine lines between an icky kiss from an older adult relative and an inappropriate kiss from an abuser. If you make it okay to say no when they feel uncomfortable, they will be more likely to say no when it counts and that they will not feel pressured to comply out of politeness. I have found that explaining this discreetly to the offended adult will go a long way toward making it a teachable moment for everyone.
2. Bathing suit parts of the body are private, but accurately named.
Of course this definition applies to younger children the most; as they get older, they will know what parts are private. Still, providing your children with an accurate language for those parts — words like penis, vagina, breasts, buttocks, and anus, for example — will arm them with the right words to be able to tell you if something they don’t know how to talk about happens that makes them uncomfortable.
3. Ask the difficult questions!
Even if children roll their eyes and get squirmy when you bring it up, it’s important they know how you feel about anyone making them uncomfortable. Hopefully the only thing that will come up is that “Grandma smells bad when she hugs me,” but it is a terrible burden for children to carry secrets, and if they are asked in a gentle, calm, matter-of-fact way, they have the opportunity to unburden themselves. Please note, how you respond to even the silliest unburdening (i.e. Grandma smells) will set in their minds how you might respond if something more serious and important comes up. Let them know you love them, that it is your job to protect them and that you will make sure that they are safe if they ever have something scary or upsetting to tell them. If they do tell you something that is upsetting, tell them that you are upset because they have been scared/hurt/made uncomfortable and that your feelings are not about what they did (or didn’t) do.
4. Pay attention to changes in behavior.
Remember the scenario where a child behaves in a shockingly sexual manner? That is a big red flag that something is going on and needs to be addressed. Common types of behavior changes include increased dependency, sudden changes in desire to spend time with certain people, changes in sleeping (nightmares, increased or decreased sleeping), isolating or aggressiveness. These things (except for the sexual behavior, which usually indicates a more serious situation) are more of a prompt to ask the difficult questions and don’t necessarily mean anything is going on, but they are worth paying attention to and seeking professional help about.
5. Get informed. Get help.
Schools provide a great deal of support and information related to sexual abuse prevention. Now they also go beyond simply teaching “stranger danger” (which is actually not nearly as common as abuse by someone who is known and well-liked by the family). Talk to your child’s teachers and/or counselor or social worker – they will be more than willing to help point you in a good direction. If your child does tell you about sexual abuse, call your local abuse hotline. If you don’t know who to call, there is a national hotline:
It takes a village…
Yes, it’s a cliché, but most clichés have some truth to them. If you are not related to a child you are concerned about, and do not feel comfortable talking to the parents, you can call the same number above and get guidance on what you can do to help. Predators depend on the silence and self-doubt of those who “see but don’t see” what is going on. While parents will find the idea of their child being abused upsetting, it would be much better for it to come to the light sooner rather than later. And it has a far-reaching impact on children to know that an adult who cares about them has the courage to speak up for them, even if the initial realization is difficult and upsetting.
I can tell you, based on 13+ years of working with families involved with Children’s Services, that services now are fundamentally designed to keep children safe, and when possible, with their families, while also treating the underlying issues. If you have any doubt about the long-term consequences of continuing to be abused vs. the experience of having sexual abuse reported and brought to the light, ask an adult survivor of child sexual abuse.
A couple of basic abuse-proofing guidelines I use in my interactions with kids include the following:
1. Adults do NOT keep secrets from parents. Even if there is a surprise for one parent, another adult — in particular, the other parent — should be told about the surprise in front of the child. This way it is clear that there is no secret between one adult and one child.
2. “No” is absolutely okay. Even if a child is playing, I see it as an opportunity to “rehearse” what an adult should do when a kid says no. This can become a fun game of boundary-setting and respecting.
3. Unintentional touch: If a child either touches me in my bathing suit area or I accidentally touch him or her (hey, it happens to the best of us), I either say, “Whoops, that’s mine and it’s private!” or “I’m sorry, that’s your private area!” It can be light in tone, but should be firm either way. If a kid gets overly focused in a teasing/boundary testing sort of way, redirection is great, including finding something to keep those hands busy (coloring, throwing a ball, anything) and, if necessary, appealing to parental authority to end it.
I hope this is helpful and, more than anything, I hope it helps us all to have frank and honest conversations within our communities about how to keep children safe so they can grow up and explore and love their bodies and live the way they are intended.