As communities celebrate Child Safety and Protection Month, local and national experts in the field of child sexual abuse prevention celebrate the positive steps parents are taking to empower and protect children. One of the proven elements of protecting children from child sexual abuse is teaching them correct terms for genitals. When caregivers teach children correct terminology – such as “penis,” “vagina,” “scrotum” and “vulva” – they reduce the risks for children to suffer sexual abuse. Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Joyce Prusak and Melanie Sachs, survivor and prevention activist, express optimism for future generations, as an increasing number of parents teach children the correct terms.
“Consequences of child sexual abuse include behavioral, health, sexual and emotional issues, and we see the impacts in our county,” Prusak said. “Perpetrators use children’s innocence and try to silence them. One proven tool that can empower children is teaching them correct terms for private body parts. As more parents take this preventative step, I feel encouraged. In our field, we often see heartbreak, and it’s important to take a moment and recognize the glimpses of light and hope.”
Research shows that children who know the scientific names for private body parts are at a lower risk for becoming victims. Knowledge of correct terms for genitals gives children the notion their body belongs to them and provides foundation for subsequent sexual education. Additionally, knowledge of genital names helps children report abuse and aids the investigation and prosecution.
Sachs echoed Prusak’s sentiments. Sachs has made preventing child sexual abuse her mission. New Hampshire native, Sachs currently lives in Massachusetts. She knows the impacts of sexual abuse all too well.
“I was 9-10 years old when I was sexually abused in the home I was being watched after school,” Sachs said. “I was 12 when I was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in the woods behind an elementary school in my hometown by a 17-year-old.”
Turning “pain to purpose,” Sachs has shared her survivor story at conferences across the country. She has chosen a career to help children who have experienced sexual abuse. With a degree in sociology, Sachs has served as family advocate and forensic interviewer. Working in the field of child abuse and neglect for 10 years, she has borne witness to more than 1,000 child sexual abuse cases.
The best way to fight child abuse is to stop it before it happens. As a proven element of prevention, teaching children correct terms for private body parts is vital, according to Sachs.
“As a trained forensic interviewer of children, I know the difficulty of figuring out what body part children are referring to if they use five different names or play names for penis and vagina, such as ‘pocket’ or ‘piepie,’ as I have heard, among many others,” Sachs said.
Using euphemisms for genitals can be detrimental to children, regardless of whether they have been sexually abused or not. Replacing scientific words with euphemisms can create “a great deal of shame,” said Sachs.
“Empowering your children to call their body parts the correct names early on can reduce the stigma and increase the accuracy of what they are able to tell you if something happens to them, which we all hope never does,” Sachs said.
Studies show that one in 10 children suffer child sexual abuse before the age of 18.
“The statistics are real, and we have to be aware and willing to be a champion for our children and speak truth, even when it comes down to the names of body parts,” Sachs said. “We call an elbow an elbow, not a ‘weenus,’ which is the slang word for the skin on your elbow. If ‘weenus’ sounds weird to you, then any name other than penis and vagina should sound weird to you, too.”
Parents have the opportunity and responsibility to provide accurate information about sexuality to their children.
“This information could save children from many years of pain, questioning and wondering,” Sachs said. “If you don’t inform them, someone else will, and the information they find somewhere else can be inaccurate and harmful.”
Recently married, Sachs is looking forward to raising children. She will teach them correct terms for genitals.
“Although kids ages 2 and younger often don’t retain much information, I will plant seeds of information at this age that will be reiterated in an age-appropriate manner as my child grows,” Sachs said.
As children grow, information makes more sense if “seeds are planted early on.”
“My children will have awareness of their body and will know the correct names for private parts,” Sachs said. “I will foster a no-shame experience for my children around these topics.”
Perpetrators use shame and silence as tools to abuse victims. Eliminating stigma disarms abusers and empowers children. Teaching children correct words for genitals can protect them from becoming victims.
Child sexual abuse creates trauma and has long-term consequences. Taking preventative measures now will have a significant impact in the future, and it’s encouraging that many parents are taking action to prevent child sexual abuse. Prusak and Sachs praised parents who use the scientific names for private body parts, as this knowledge will make children safer.
For more information about the importance of teaching children correct terms and tips about age-appropriate parent-child communication about sexuality, visit www.coffeecountycac.org/tea.