GUEST COLUMN: NO ROOM FOR EXCUSES IN CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
By Nancy Williams, Special to The Commercial Appeal
Published Friday, June 17, 2011
When stories of child sexual abuse hit the media and the victim is a teenager, or perhaps even a little younger, faulty underlying assumptions about the victim’s responsibility emerge. Many also jump to troubling conclusions when the victim is an adolescent or teenage boy.
Memphis has seen a rash of such stories lately, most recently during testimony in the James Hawkins murder trial. While the alleged offenders may be teachers, coaches, pastors, parents or caregivers, the public sometimes believes the victim is blameworthy as well.
There is a common notion that adolescents can consent to sexual activity with adults. After all, they have started to get interested in sex; many of them are already sexually active with peers. The reality is that every day, the Memphis Child Advocacy Center and its partners serve children and teens through age 17 who have been sexually abused.
Tennessee law states that when an adult has sex with a minor who is at least four years younger it is statutory rape, a felony. If the victim is age 12 or younger, it is rape of a child, also a felony. While the signs and symptoms of sexual trauma may vary among age groups, there is no doubt that all children and teenagers suffer tremendously.
Victimized teens are at risk for a host of devastating effects if they don’t receive appropriate support and compassionate professional intervention. Some of these effects include lifelong struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction or re-victimization. Sixty percent of first teen pregnancies are preceded by an incident of child sexual abuse.
Maybe we feel a little safer when we blame the victim; thinking that a teen had control in an abusive situation may help us believe that our own kids are immune from such a threat. But that false sense of security puts our teens at higher risk. We are better served by training our community’s adults first. When the adults of a community understand the definition of sexual abuse, recognize the dangers, report suspicions and talk effectively with their kids about these issues, perpetrators have much less freedom to take advantage of children and teens.
Sex offenders are, among other things, opportunists. They often seek out children and teens who are more vulnerable because they are more easily blamed — because of their age, their past behavior or their normal developmental urges. They count on the silence supported by the shame and misplaced blame of uninformed, even if well-meaning, adults. Offenders prefer settings (schools, faith-based organizations, after-school volunteer programs, etc.) that don’t have specific informed sexual abuse prevention policies. They avoid places where people have been trained to recognize the dangers, know how to talk about them and know how to respond.
As a community, we can support kids by holding adult offenders accountable. No excuses. The idea that there are certain circumstances in which adults who sexually abuse minors were somehow not responsible because they claim to have “lost control” is not acceptable — and it isn’t accurate. It doesn’t matter what a teen was wearing, how he was acting, if she had a schoolgirl crush, or whether he was already sexually active.
Older women don’t do boys a favor by “introducing them to sex.” When that happens, it is statutory rape. Teenagers don’t “consent” to a “sexual relationship” with adults; they are sexually manipulated, exploited and violated. The legal terms include incest, rape of a child, statutory rape, statutory rape by an authority figure, sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery. When an adult is sexual with a child or an adolescent, it is destructive, it is illegal and it is never the fault of the child.
Our culture has come a long way in terms of sexual abuse prevention. Since the Child Advocacy Center opened its doors in 1992, we have seen enhanced public awareness, increased reporting of suspected abuse and an enormously improved institutional response. National studies show that the incidence of sexual abuse has decreased slightly in recent years.
In May of this year, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton endorsed the Child Advocacy Center’s sexual abuse prevention initiative, resulting in a commitment to provide evidence-based sexual abuse prevention training for all Memphis police officers by the end of 2012. Many other institutions, faith-based organizations and agencies are following suit.
Despite our progress, we still have a long journey ahead of us.
I invite you to find out more about how you can get sexual abuse prevention training or assistance in creating effective policy at your school, day care center, after-school program or place of worship. For information, go to MemphisCAC.org. Every child of either gender and all ages who has been sexually traumatized deserves our full support.
Nancy Williams is executive director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. Contact her at nwilliams@MemphisCAC.org.