In addition to the much-anticipated arrival of spring, April is also the month when we work to heighten awareness of both sexual assault and child abuse.
Recently, the Centre County Board of Commissioners heard presentations from the director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County about Child Abuse Prevention Month and the director of outreach of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center about Sexual Assault Awareness Month and issued proclamations about both.
It is not just an interesting coincidence of the calendar that Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month happen at the same time. The serendipitous timing of these prevention and awareness months remind us that sexual violence and child abuse too often coincide — something we in Centre County know all too well.
The statistics are disturbing — nearly 10 percent of those children who experience maltreatment or abuse suffer sexual abuse. Estimates are that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be victims of sexual abuse. And the numbers don’t improve when we talk about adult victims of sexual violence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of women attending higher education institutions experience rape or attempted rape during their college careers. And sadly, we know that an experience of child sexual abuse increases the likelihood that a person will experience sexual assault as an adult.
But just as sexual violence can happen across the life span, so too can the development of healthy sexual relationships.
The common roots of the prevention of child sexual abuse and adult sexual assault give hope that change is possible. For example, while we know that it is adults who are responsible for the abusive acts perpetrated upon children, we also know that we can give our kids tools that will decrease the likelihood they will be targeted by those who would hurt them — and we can provide them with the resources to ask for help when they need it.
Teaching our children appropriate boundaries and supporting them when they exercise those boundaries are critical to our children understanding issues of bodily integrity and consent.
Our kids need to know that it is OK and appropriate to say “no” when someone tries to touch them in ways that make them uncomfortable. And we need to back them up, even if the person our kids are saying “no” to is a family member or friend.
Kids who have learned that it is OK to say no to an unwanted kiss or hug from Aunt Sally or Uncle Bob will understand as young adults that it is OK to say no to someone who pressures you for sex. Children who are taught to understand and recognize personal boundaries will grow into adolescents and adults who understand consent.
We begin to protect our adolescents and young adult children when they are small by giving them the tools to understand that the giving and receiving of consent are critical components of adult sexual behavior.
Like all characteristics of healthy adult behavior, consent is not something that children understand or can give. But as we teach our kids healthy personal boundaries and as we support them when they exercise those boundaries, they will grow into adults who can engage in healthy and safe relationships.