I don’t remember his name, and I can’t picture his face. I don’t even know how old he was, only that he towered over me. I can picture his lanky body and his curved, snakelike fingers.
My mom would take me and my sister to meetings. It was the ’80s, she was a newly single mom, and she was trying to find herself, so there were a lot of meetings. I don’t remember if this was Weight Watchers, a book club, or some kind of spiritual awakening/self-help type thing.
The grown-ups did their thing in the living room while the kids watched TV in the adjoining den — lots of kids playing, wrestling, piling up on each other while the TV blared.
He would tickle me. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old — not a little child, not a teenager. I was somewhere between. Had my breasts started budding? I was 10 when they did. It doesn’t matter; he wasn’t interested in that part of me.
He’d tickle me in the corner, between the beat-up green couches. He’d tickle my belly. I felt pinned down. And then his fingers would make their way in between my legs. And he’d tickle there. At first I thought it was an accident, but his fingers lingered. I had never been tickled that way before.
The first time it happened, I filed it away under “That’s weird, but probably an accident or something.” My mom had always taught us girls that our bodies were our own, and that no one should ever, ever touch us in a way that made us uncomfortable. But I was a child; I didn’t know exactly what kind of uncomfortable she meant.
The second time it happened, I had this lightbulb moment of awareness: No, this is wrong. I knew that the fact of him doing it again meant that it wasn’t an accident. It was intentional.
My mother was big on safety and self-protection — some might say overprotective. She told us often what was and wasn’t OK, especially when it came to our bodies. There had been kidnappings in the area, and we knew all the details. We knew never to accept the candy, to stay away from anyone eyeing us in a suspicious way, and to tell her if anything at all creepy or boundary-pushing happened.
Most of all, she taught us to be comfortable and aware of our bodies. We always used all the real words (“breasts” and “vagina”). We knew how babies were made. We knew that sexual feelings were normal. If we touched our own vaginas, we were never told to stop, but that we should do it in private. We were told that there were nerve endings in there that made touching “feel good,” but that we were the only ones who could do it. Sex was normal between consenting adults, but not until then.
It may sound unusual, especially since this was 30 years ago, but I knew all that at 9 or 10 years old. And when I was certain the boy at the meeting should not have tickled me that way, I knew I could tell my mom exactly what happened.
I told her, and she was furious — not at me, of course, but for me. She let me feel my anger. She made it clear how correct I was that what he did was wrong. She was so proud of me for telling her.
Do you know what happens when traumas are held inside? They fester. They haunt you forever. They rear their ugly heads when you least expect it. They mess up your life.
I know that the type of molestation I experienced was, relatively speaking, small-scale. Compared to some people’s stories, mine seems like nothing. But it was something. Something happened. And these stories are all too common. Although it is hard to get completely reliable information because of underreporting, it is estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse in childhood.
These things happen, whether or not we want to admit it, and when they’re not addressed right away they can easily escalate. I don’t know what might have happened if I hung around my abuser for longer, if the tickling ritual had continued.
I am grateful that my mother got me out of there. I’m grateful we never returned. I’m grateful she spoke sternly to the parents of the young man and made it clear that he had crossed a boundary with me. And I’m grateful that nothing like that ever happened to me again.
Now I’m a mother. I have two sons. And I give them all the same information that my own mother did. I want my sons to know how their bodies work, about sex, about boundaries. These things have been in the conversation since they were very young. I don’t sugar-coat anything. I want them to trust their instincts if anything doesn’t feel right and to know they can come to me with all the details.
If we want our kids to tell us when something suspicious happens to them, we need to prepare them. We need them to have the language, the self-awareness, the confidence. Don’t gloss over the details of what is possible, what could happen. None of it should feel taboo to discuss. If sex feels like something that needs to be a secret, it will be kept secret, especially when it crosses the line into abuse.
Here are some tips on how to prepare your kids, based on my own experience and from research I’ve done on the topic. (Here is a link to more tips and information from the National Sex Offender Public Website.)
1. Tell your kids the truth about sex.
Don’t wait for some “big talk.” It’s true that it’s hard for little kids to fully grasp what sex is, but mine began to have some idea of what it was as young as 3 years old. We looked at pictures of babies growing in wombs. We talked about sperms and eggs. They understood that Mommy and Daddy did some physical coupling to make that happen (we started out calling it a “hug,” then got more detailed).
Sex was never a mystery. It was something that two committed, loving adults did together, nothing weird or otherworldly about it — nothing that could not be discussed without embarrassment. As your kids get older, it is important to discuss images of sex that are seen in the media and how they compare to reality.
2. Tell your kids about how their bodies work.
Like my mother, we avoid using any euphemisms for our reproductive organs. If you want to, that’s fine, but whatever you do, you need to talk openly about body parts. You need to have a language that is appropriate and technically accurate. Your kids need to know how their private parts work and what their functions are. That way they will know if something out of the ordinary is being done to them.
They also need to know that certain body parts give them pleasurable feelings when they touch them. They need to know when and how it is appropriate for them to self-stimulate, and not to be ashamed of doing so.
3. Be explicit about exactly which body parts are private and what would constitute a violation of that privacy.
This is perhaps the most uncomfortable part, but the most necessary. As much as we hate to think about anything possibly happening to our kids, it is vital that they are prepared for that eventuality, should it happen. So they need to know that there is a very short list of people who can touch their private parts, and in very specific situations.
So a doctor examining your child (in a doctor’s office, with you nearby) would be appropriate. And a parent cleaning private parts would be appropriate. But anyone else examining or looking or touching, for any reason, is not appropriate. Your child needs to know this and to tell you about it right away if it happens.
4. Teach your child general bodily boundaries.
Children need to know that they are in charge of their own bodies, in every situation. Don’t want extra kisses from grandma? Politely tell her so. You want the rough play to stop? Have a good code word for that around the house, and if you are the one playing with your children, stop as soon as they indicate that they have had enough. Make sure your children know to respect others’ boundaries as well.
5. Talk to your kids, about everything.
It’s important to have an open dialogue going all the time about your children’s lives. Know which grown-ups are involved in activities your child engages in (especially outside your presence). Have a time of day when you can really sit down and talk to your kids.
I know that my older son won’t tell me a word about his day until lights out when I tuck him in. I make sure to have a special check-in time with my kids each day. It’s important to have an openness about feelings in general. Anger, sadness, frustration, embarrassment — these are all normal feelings.
It’s not always easy for a parent to deal with children who are misbehaving as a result of some of these feelings, but it’s important not to shame your children for their feelings. If anything were to happen to them that elicited extreme feelings (as sexual abuse does), your children need to know that they can express their feelings to you.
If your children do come to you with anything suspicious (even an inkling that something is amiss), believe them. Investigate. And if you suspect sexual abuse happened, call the authorities (here is some information for how to go about it).
Don’t be afraid to show your children your anger over what happened — make it clear that they were right to come forward. Give your children the space to express their feelings, all of them, in any way they know how. Make sure to get your children counseling if they need it.
And by god, make a pledge to remove your children from the situation immediately. Get the hell out of there. Don’t return. Make sure your kids know they will never have to face their predator again.