Medical professionals often can’t diagnose child sexual abuse. Rather than trying to diagnose and intervene after sexual abuse has occurred, the best way to fight abuse is before it happens. Prevention is key, and one of the greatest tools parents have for preventing sexual abuse is teaching children the correct terms for private body parts, starting as early as possible. With the world celebrating World Children’s Day, which promotes improving children's welfare, local and national professionals stress the importance of teaching children correct terminology and express optimism about the positive steps parents are taking to protect youth.
“Statistics show that 95% of children who experience abuse are abused by someone they know and trust,” said Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center. “To prevent child sexual abuse, parents must be able to maintain honest relationships with their children. Communicating with children about any topic – especially topics related to sexual education – is extremely important when it comes to preventing child abuse.”
Dr. Lauren Burge, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine and board certified child abuse pediatrician, also stressed the importance of parent-child communication. Burge is one of 350 child abuse pediatricians in the country. She is part of the CARES team at LeBonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis. CARES team helps identify suspicious injuries and assists child protective services and law enforcement in understanding medical conditions.
“Sexual abuse is really tricky,” Burge said. “It’s easier to diagnose physical abuse because you can see a bruise on the arm and ask what happened. Sexual abuse is not like that. Most often, there will be no physical signs that a child has been sexually abused.”
Sexual abuse damages children, families and communities, and it’s very hard for physicians to prove or recognize it.
“Sexual abuse is more prevalent than we even realize because you can’t pick it up,” Burge said. “Most often the people who are perpetrating abuse are people who are known by the child – family members and their friends, their trusted pastors, their mentors. Because we know we can’t often diagnose it, we need to try to prevent it. Which means we need to get parents and children to be on the lookout and have knowledge and skills to protect themselves, to recognize when they are in an unsafe situation, get out of that situation, and tell someone immediately.”
When it comes to fighting sexual abuse, prevention is “our best weapon,” said Burge. Some long-held beliefs about child sexual abuse have been proven wrong. Many parents now realize that the idea about a sexual abuser being a man in a white van who picks up children at the parking lot and runs off with them is incorrect.
“That is just not true,” Burge said. “Parents need to understand that sexual abuse can happen at anytime, anywhere, with anybody. Your church pastors need to be smart and never be alone with a child and have built-in protective mechanisms. You should be aware that it can come from anybody. Be on guard, be wise, and teach your children to be wise. You need to understand there’s no evidence a child has been sexually abused. There’s no such thing as a virginity test. As a physician, if I do an exam, I can’t tell you whether the child had a sexual contact or not.”
Child sexual abuse happens frequently, quickly and by trusted figures.
“Parents need to set their children up for success by arming them with knowledge about what is appropriate and what is not,” Burge said. “All that information needs to come out from the mouths of the parents and come as early as possible, starting at birth.”
Knowing correct terms for private parts helps children disclose abuse and be understood.
“Let’s say a girl comes to a teacher and says, ‘Uncle Billy touched my Cheeto.’ The teacher will think, ‘That’s weird. I don’t know what that means. I have to move on with the lesson.’ So the girl made an outcry, but the teacher didn’t recognize it because the child was using an incorrect word,” Burge said. “That child is not protected because the teacher didn’t know what Cheeto meant. But if the girl told the teacher, ‘Uncle Billy touched my vulva.’ Then, wow – the teacher is going to know.”
Teaching children the correct terminology is important not only for protection but also for having a healthy sexuality. Humans are sexual beings.
“We are born sexual,” Burge said. “When you are raising your boy or girl, you should say, ‘This is your penis/this is your vulva. These are great body parts. They are cool body parts that cool things happen to – urine comes out of them, and babies come out of them.’ Tell your children these body parts are special and should be kept protected and private.”
Eliminate any shame around these words. Begin using correct terminology as early as you start talking to your child.
“Let your children know their bodies are beautiful and healthy,” Burge said. “It’s very beneficial to use correct terms. We should not be ashamed to say penis, vagina, clitoris – these are all scientific terms, just like elbow.”
Burge has two children, and she has taught them correct terms for genitals. Her children have “a lovely vocabulary,” she said.
“My daughter has knowledge and pride of her own body,” Burge said.
Burge expressed hope for future generations, as the knowledge they receive now will serve them well when they grow up.
“My professional friends – people who are doctors, nurses, lawyers, and healthcare professionals – all of them use the correct terms unabashedly,” Burge said. “They teach their children correct phrases for their private parts without hesitation. We all use correct terms at an early age, and we are very adamant about this because we know how important it is.”
With an increasing number of parents using correct terminology, children will be empowered with knowledge and better protected from child sexual abuse.