Trigger warning: If you are a sexual assault survivor, I encourage you to consider reading this with support/a therapist. The ideas expressed here are intended to transform our handling of sexual abuse in our culture for the purposes of ultimately ending it.
Do you believe child sexual abuse can truly end? As the seasons change from Summer to Fall, I remember another Autumn evening sharing with a mentor about the healing work I do with sexually abused children. She listened attentively, then said, "Great, and what if you put an end to child sexual abuse?"
I laughed. She waited for my answer.
"Who me? I can't do that!" I eventually said. "Why not?" she countered. I didn't have an answer; It just seemed impossible. At a rate of 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4-6 boys sexually assaulted before the age of 18, how could anyone stop it? That inquiry sent me on a journey you can read about in What If They're Not Monsters? (part one). After three years and a deep process of facing my fears, I now believe it is possible, if we commit to it together as it's going to take something transformative from all of us. Here are my non-exhaustive recommendations:
As a society, we have the most work to do on this issue. We must accept that we share families, work places, neighborhoods, schools, churches and more with those who are sex addicts, pedophiles, sexual predators and sex offenders. All of us likely know, love or trust someone who is dealing with these issues. We cannot afford to be shocked every time we learn of another good person who has sexually offended. Our shock is a sign of our denial and our denial cloaks our awareness. Categorizing sex offenders as monsters relieves our individual responsibility: if evil is evil there's nothing I can do to change it. We must come to see sex offenders as people, members of our shared community.
How do we hold these people accountable given that some will never harm anyone, some have harmed but won't harm again, and others will repeat their offense if given the opportunity? From politicians to police officers, our struggle with accountability is evident. We either dismiss it or seek vengeance, shame and shun the offender (and often the victim too). Yet our fierceness is misplaced. From the start, we should make it known: "I will talk to you if something you do makes me/my child uncomfortable." Before someone perpetrates, there is often a grooming process: many little violations that if questioned could prevent a larger offense. We need to normalize these conversations with our lovers, pastors, coaches, babysitters, anyone who spends time with our children.
To be effective, we cannot have a society of paranoid people on a witch hunt. Rather we need communities rooted in their power or inherent animal nature. From true power, we know when to bare our teeth, as many did in response to Brock Turner's unjust sentence for raping an unconscious woman, and we know when to use our higher functioning to forgive and welcome back into society those who have taken full responsibility for their crimes. After all, isn't love more powerful than fear? We lack good demonstrations of true power in our culture, so I am sharing the "Māori Haka wedding video.". The "haka" is a traditional Māori dance that was performed by warriors to demonstrate their strength and power. Today, it is performed in many traditional ceremonies from weddings to sports events. Watch as this community mirrors its ferocity to the bride and groom and concludes in loving connection. Our societies, families, and children will be healthier when we re-learn this.
To therapists and other providers of sexual abuse treatment, thank you for the difficult work you do, foregoing your innocence and risking your mental health to provide our children and families with the healing they need. Vicarious trauma is real; get help when you need it.
We need leaders among you. We need task forces set on expanding the current child abuse reporting laws so that "prevention centers," much like Germany's "Prevention Project Dunkelfeld," can exist: a safe place where pedophiles and others at risk for sexually offending can go to receive treatment. Task forces are also needed to form new programs for first-time or low-risk sex offenders much like Restorative Justice, a practice that brings accountability and transformation as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. Its main tenets, as highlighted at RestorativeJustice.org, are:
"(1) Repair: crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm; (2) Encounter: the best way to
determine how to do that is to have the parties decide together; and (3) Transformation: this can cause
fundamental changes in people, relationships and communities."
While Restorative Justice has traditionally been applied to less serious crimes, fundamental to ending child sexual abuse is inclusion of a process of transformation. Without it the wound is too great and we are likely to continue the cycle for generations to come. If you are a professional interested in these ideas, please contact me.
To anyone who has caused sexual harm, do your work. The children, women and men you have harmed are forever changed by what you have done. You contribute to their healing by doing whatever it takes to ensure you never harm again. The more you heal, the greater your understanding will be of the harm you caused. Grow your capacity to hold that pain without collapsing into shame. When shame arises, share it with trusted helpers because shame sent underground is the seed for harming again. Learn how to be vigorously honest and find forgiveness for yourself. Amass your recovery team and use them.
If someone is accusing you of sexual harm, please do not follow my uncle's nor Woody Allen's example and justify why the accusations are false. Use this as an opportunity to open a dialogue, to learn more about why your behavior felt unsafe or violating. It doesn't matter if you don't agree. If a person doesn't want to be tickled, stop tickling them. If someone is uncomfortable being alone with you, ensure someone is always there. Move beyond your male privilege and learn how to be an ally.
I know there are many of you who will never cause sexual harm again. We need visible leaders among you, to join forces with groups like "Reform Sex Offender Laws" and to do the hard work of healing and reconciliation. If our brothers and sisters in Rwanda can come together to heal from genocide, we can come together, perpetrators and victims, to heal the cycle of sexual abuse.
For non-offending parents whose child has been sexually abused: believe your child, love them, connect them with helpers who you trust and don't wait; do it now. Research shows parental support and early treatment greatly aid your child's healing. Then, find yourself a therapist, someone who helps reconnect you to the ground, who can hold with you your strong feelings. It's okay to be angry, but staying in anger too long becomes a dangerous, toxic place and you risk losing yourself. If you are not comfortable talking with your children about sex, grow your capacity. Teach your child the proper names and functions of their private parts. Children armed with knowledge of their bodies have a reduced risk of being sexually abused.
If the abuse happened in your family, you do not have to take sides. You can compassionately hold your abusing family member accountable while also being there for the person who experienced the abuse. Holding him/her accountable is a loving act for all involved; your leadership on that is crucial. Be willing to look at the ways you were ineffective in parenting. Parenting is hard and we all are ineffective at times, to admit this does not make you a bad parent. Learn effective parenting techniques as a protective strategy to prevent abuse from happening in your family again.
For my sisters and brothers, my fellow survivors, despite the title of this blog, you have permission (not that you need it) to call the person who harmed you whatever you want for as long as you need. Your violation is real and your anger is justified. No one has a right to violate you. Ever. No matter what.
Feel your feelings. Let them serve as breadcrumbs guiding you back home to your center. Presence your safety. All. The. Time. For as long as it takes. Create art. Find ways to reconnect your senses with beauty and comfort. Engage in activities that restore your curiosity and joy. Your brain can't play and be in trauma at the same time; Give room for both. When you are ready to heal sexually, know there are people and places that are resources for you. You can have a healthy sex life.
Get a good therapist and gather your community. Ask them to hold space for you powerfully. Your very survival is the mark of a warrior; remember who you are. No matter how broken you feel, like the plants and trees, you are wildly powerful. Go towards anything and everything that connects you with that truth. If your caregiver is disbelieving or minimizing of your experience, please don't waste a single moment wondering if they love you. You are lovable regardless of your caregiver's capacity to demonstrate it. Sexual abuse carries a generational wound that often leaves caregivers in denial, lacking protective skills; That is not your fault. If you are interested in joining together powerfully with other survivors in my upcoming shamanic circle, click here.
In truth, the solutions are just as complex as the issue. The point is to get us engaged in a new conversation. Preventative treatment options, expansion of child abuse reporting laws, Restorative Justice programs - these are tangible possibilities. As I write, my daughter has been in her Wonder Woman cape for days. Watching her "fight crime" in our neighborhood, I feel my own childish wish for it to be that simple. It will not be easy to change our cultural narrative surrounding sexual abuse and sex offenders, a topic historically so weighted in darkness, and it can be done. I am starting with both feet rooted in the light and I hope you will stand with me.
Rainbow A. Marifrog