A special report in two parts, Nashville Parent responds to the reality of sexual abuse in Middle Tennessee.
Entering the age of cracking voices and pimples, kids are vulnerable and in need of protection more than ever — especially in places where adults are not present. SEE THE SCHOOLHOUSE SEX ASSAULT REPORT.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
OPINION BY SUSAN DAY The universal Law of Polarity states that all things have a polar opposite: within every failure there is potential for success. There is happy and sad, love and hate, win and lose, good and evil, and on and on. In all environments this polarity potential exists. Take a school environment, for instance. Like a locker room. The leaders and the followers, the weak and the strong, the bullies and the bullied. Polarity exists through all stages of life, but perhaps it’s in middle school — just when kids are trying to sort out who they are, where the polarity law is at its most intense. Kids reach sexual maturity at different ages, with scattered guidance from the adults and other kids in their lives. Kids learn about sexuality online, too. In 2017, where access to pornography is widespread online, all kinds of “lessons” can be found. According to an extensive 2017 study of adolescents in the UK by Middlesex University, of the 1,000 children and young adults studied, 46 percent reported searching for pornography graphically. Now let’s look at social media use among kids. Snapchat, and the sharing images — any images — knowing that within seconds it will be erased forever. Kids often go to sleep holding their phones. They check their social media sites before brushing their teeth in the morning. Kids also screenshot images and share them via text, over and over again. Now mix all of this up. Combine the Law of Polarity with puberty, sexual curiosities, easy access to porn and the unmonitored “underground” world of Snapchat. It makes a snapshot of teenage life today. Of course, this is not ALL kids are interested in, but they are ALL aware of it. For some kids, it can distort an otherwise healthy interest. Left unchecked, it can lead to disaster.
LOOK & LISTEN
We’ve heard about sexual abuse in private schools up North. We know that adults have sexually assaulted students. We know adults sexually abuse children all over the world every day, but we’ve heard very little about child-on-child sexual abuse — certainly not here at home. The South has a storied history of sweeping unsavory topics “under the rug,” yet we know that it’s the wrong course of action. When it comes to children and sexual abuse, “turning the other cheek” and “boys being boys” are ill-advised permissive clichés that have no place in a child's healthy sexual development. Whether or not child-on-child sexual assault is linked to pornography is not known, but it can be theorized. The Internet is a key part in young lives, and if kids don’t have access to honest sexual health information, it can have devastating consequences. Bullying is linked to child-on-child assault, and we all know that bullying runs rampant in schools even with all of our good adult attempts to dismantle it and “be nice.” The truth is, in a middle or high school locker room filled with teens changing clothes and no adult supervision or cameras, “things” can happen instantly. A bully can find his victim, a life can be damaged forever. Adults everywhere must take their heads out of the sand to become emboldened protectors of innocent children. — Susan Day is editor of Nashville Parent
BY KIM JANECEK Sam*, 12, recently started seventh grade at a new school. At his old school, Sam was sexually abused by older peers. A small group of boys — known around the school as bullies — had attacked and assaulted him in the restroom. The incident was traumatic and had a devastating impact on Sam and his family. Sam became extremely fearful of going to school. He dropped out of extracurricular activities, showed signs of depression and anxiety, his grades declined and he avoided using the restroom at school as much as possible. After learning about the incident and reporting it (Tennessee Law mandates immediately reporting abuse to Children’s Services or the police), Sam and his parents began working with therapists who specialize in sexual assault counseling. Sam began the long and arduous road to healing. Unfortunately, stories like Sam’s are not uncommon: one in four girls and one in six boys will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18, and according to a 2012 Crimes Against Children Research Report, as many as 40 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by older, more powerful children.
When people typically think about child sexual abuse, they envision an adult abusing a child. While this is very common, unfortunately, in Tennessee, about 19 percent of the time, it is a child abusing another child. The reasons children sexually harm others are complicated, varied and not always obvious. Most experts believe that children raised in abusive homes learn that violence is an effective way to resolve conflicts and problems. They may replicate the violence they witnessed as children in their teen and adult relationships and become abusive themselves or known as a bully. Bullies view violence as an acceptable way to interact with peers. They look to gain power and control over another and they lack the appropriate interpersonal skills to treat others respectfully. These issues are also true with children and teen’s interaction with social media. Social media can be a platform for connecting and providing positive communication, but it can also be used in very negative ways. Platforms like Snapchat make it easy for kids and teens to cyberbully and perpetuate sexual violence. Teens are able to hide behind their screens and post harmful and abusive information and images about other students. Once that information is in cyberspace, it can’t be taken back and often results in a never-ending cycle of “shares” reaching an endless number of people. Bullying and cyber-bullying may start off with small situations or problems, but if these are not addressed, the bullying may become more aggressive and harmful.
HEALTHY AT HOME
Often children and teens are not taught what healthy relationships and boundaries look and feel like. Conversations with kids about these topics must begin at a young age in homes and schools. Talk with your child about body safety and boundaries. As your child grows, continue having age-appropriate conversations about healthy relationships and how to be an active bystander if he sees something he thinks is wrong. In order to do this, he needs you in his life to talk to about these difficult topics. He also needs to know you will respect his boundaries and are willing to help if the need arises. If you suspect or your child discloses sexual abuse to you, try to remain calm. Let him know this is not his fault and that you believe him. Then let him know that you need to report this to the appropriate authorities so you can get him help. Having conversations with children and adults is a pathway to sexual assault prevention. These conversations often feel tricky and scary, but they are worth it. Kim Janecek is the education curriculum manager at the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville. Learn more at sacenter.org and besafeatlast.com. *name has been changed Save Save