About 12 years ago my husband and I started building a house in the town where I grew up. I wanted to raise my family here, and it had been a dream of mine for a long time. This small, quaint town was magical to me, my heart was always here, and each time I would visit and then leave, I knew I would be back. I knew this was where my kids would be raised.
As the walls were going up one sultry July afternoon, one of our neighbors came over to introduce himself. I tried to be neighborly but found him a little too assertive for my liking. “We have cows. You should bring your kids over to see them. My barn is always stocked with candy too. You can come over right now.”
His eyes cut through me, and I immediately found myself wanting to get away from him. I told him, “Nope, I am not much for cows,” and I turned my back to him. He left in a hurry. Later I told my husband we would never go to see his cows, and to make sure he never, ever let the kids go over to his house. There was something about him I didn’t like.
Three years later, I came home to find a police officer in my driveway. He handed me a piece of paper as I got out of my car, and I recognized my neighbor’s picture on the front. “You are going to want to read this. We are alerting everyone living within a 1-mile radius.”
The flyer explained how my neighbor, the pushy man with the cows and the candy in his barn, had been jailed twice for rape. Upon further investigation and a meeting with the entire neighborhood and law enforcement, we learned he had raped a woman while she was jogging. He was found guilty, served his time, and right after he got out of jail, he did it again, and this time the victim was a minor. I didn’t care that it was 20 years ago — he was living less than a quarter mile away from me and my babies, and I felt out of control. I was furious. I was sad. I was scared.
Our safe, quiet little town suddenly felt scary, like it had lost much of its charm. Since then, I have done quite a bit of research and have discovered there are not many towns where you are safe from sex offenders. And as uncomfortable and hard as it is, I make it a point to talk to my kids about sexual abuse and self-protection once a month, minimum, because it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes we are in the car, in a restaurant, or at home. It doesn’t matter where. If there is an opportunity to speak to my kids in a way that helps them understand the seriousness of the matter, I do it.
I have told them time and time again that you respect adults, yes, but you do not have to do everything they say if you know it is wrong. They do not have to kiss or hug anyone when asked, and there is never a reason for anyone to touch their genitals or for them to feel forced into touching someone else’s. If they feel uncomfortable, they can call me or leave whatever situation they are in, anytime, anywhere.
These days, I know most parents and schools do this, because we understand the importance of reminding kids they have a safe place to go and that we will fight to protect them from harm. We tell them if something makes them feel yucky, especially if it involves keeping a secret, or being touched or looked at a certain way, that is a sign they need to tell an adult right away. We don’t care that we start to sound like a white noise machine, because the more we talk, the more open we are, the more confident and empowered our children will be when faced with tough decisions. Many of us were brought up in a time when there wasn’t enough dialogue around this subject and we felt too ashamed to voice our fears. Now we want to foster a more supportive, shame-free environment for our children.
For too long, many claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and many incidents went unreported because victims knew there was nothing that could be done by the time they were ready to take action. It has only been recently that statutes of limitations have been lengthened — something that is absolutely necessary since some children are not able to wrap their heads around what is happening to them, and often physical or emotional damage doesn’t surface until they are older.
When I outed my abuser to a therapist when I was 16, she explained to me since it had not been reported, by law, she had to immediately report it. A few weeks later, I was driven to the police station where I was asked to talk about my sexual abuse in detail. They wanted dates, the states in which the abuse took place, and details of what my abuser did to me. I sat there and told a police officer who was in his 30s details I was very uncomfortable discussing. It was excruciating for me to talk about this in front of a stranger and relive certain moments in my life that I had buried very deep. After hearing my truth, he told me there wasn’t much he, or anyone, could do because I had waited so long to report it.
Apparently my time had run out, and it felt like a gigantic fuck-you to me after what I had been through. I left feeling defeated, alone, and ashamed, and I never asked for help regarding the situation again.
Our kids deserve better than that. There is no shame in coming forward and telling someone that an adult (or another child) has done something to you that is inappropriate. It doesn’t matter if it happened 50 years ago, abuse of any kind affects us deeply. And when you feel like you have not been heard, and there is no one there to help, the damage goes deeper. The victim should never have to bear the burden of abuse.
We can raise our kids to feel empowered, educated, and know their worth. We can teach them to keep talking until someone listens, and no matter what, sexual abuse is never, ever their fault. Let’s keep the conversations going, so we can continue to break down the walls of shame and protect our kids.