Child sexual abuse affects one in 10 children and crosses all cultural and socioeconomic status boundaries. Child sexual abuse leads to mental, health and emotional problems. The good news is parents hold a key to preventing child sexual abuse by empowering their children with knowledge. Parents can reduce the risks for their children by simply teaching them correct terms for private body parts. Research has proven that this preventative measure is beneficial. As the nation celebrates World Children’s Day to promote improving children's welfare, local and national professionals express optimism, as an increasing number of parents teach their children correct terms for genitals.
“Using anatomically correct terminology will allow raising a new generation of children, who will not suffer the negative consequences caused by stigma and shame,” said Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center.
Laurie Gray, trial attorney and child advocate, echoed Prusak’s sentiments.
Perpetrators use shame and silence as tools to abuse children. Eliminating stigma disarms abusers and empowers children. Merely teaching children correct terms – such as penis, vagina, vulva and scrotum – can protect them from becoming victims. For children, knowledge of correct terms can make the difference between becoming a victim and avoiding abuse, said Gray.
Child sexual abuse traumatizes victims and causes long-term consequences. Taking preventative measures now will have a significant impact in the future, and it’s encouraging that many parents have taken steps to prevent child sexual abuse.
“Child abuse creates trauma that left untreated can adversely affect the child’s physical, neurological, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth for a lifetime and future generations,” Gray said. “We know that much of our current mental health and addiction crises are the direct result of childhood trauma.”
Gray quoted Frederick Douglass, saying, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Parents must be aware and learn how child sexual abuse affects children. They must act to empower their children and protect them.
“The less accurate information parents have, the more likely they are to be driven by fear and to shame/silence their children,” Gray said. “For our own children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren and their friends that come into our home and whose homes and families our children visit, it’s important to recognize normal curiosity and development and distinguish harmful and/or coercive behaviors, so that we can stay connected to children, not shame them for normal development and behaviors, and recognize when a child may need help. Knowledge is power, and the power here is to create a safe place for children to feel supported and understood.”
Arming children with knowledge gives them protection and takes away the power of offenders.
“Two of the greatest tools for perpetrators of sexual abuse are shame and silence,” Gray said. “When we teach kids that it is dirty or bad to even mention certain body parts, we are sowing the seeds for sexual predators to cultivate and manipulate.”
Replacing the correct terms for body parts with euphemisms damages healthy development for children, even when child sexual abuse is not of concern.
“Using incorrect words undermines healthy, consensual relationships for them as adults because they do not know how to talk about their bodies, understand normal bodily functions, ask for what they want, or how to say no to a partner or accept a partner’s no,” Gray said.
It’s impossible to set healthy boundaries around “that which shall not be named.” To ensure children have the knowledge they need, parents must have discussions about sexuality with their children.
The sexuality education children receive varies from state to state, school to school, and family to family. The only way to know what your children are being taught is to talk with them and teach them yourself, said Gray.
“Books create opportunities for parents to talk with kids about characters and situations in ways that promote understanding and connection,” Gray said. “And we have to recognize that what we were taught growing up, or surmised based on the lack of correct information, may not be correct.”
It’s hopeful that an increasing number of parents are beginning to have appropriate conversations about sexuality with their children, a development in a positive direction. A 2021 study, titled “Examination of parents’ attitudes toward and efforts to discuss child sexual abuse prevention with their children,” revealed that more than half of the parents from the sample discussed child sexual abuse and sexuality topics with their children. By providing children with correct, age-appropriate information, parents fill the void and offer children tools that can protect them and help them grow up safe and healthy.
About Laurie Gray
Gray earned her juris doctor degree from Indiana University School of Law in 1993. Her experience includes working in private practice, being a prosecutor, and serving as a bilingual child forensic interviewer. She has authored several books, including a book about parenting. She worked as the statewide sexual assault response team coordinator for the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and as a professional trainer for the National Criminal Justice Training Center. She has also facilitated cognitive behavioral therapy classes and taught criminal justice classes, constitutional law and civil rights and civil liberties classes.