I am pleased to have been asked by Joe Hackman to submit this article as a follow-up to our interview on Blogtalk Radio which took place on April 21, 2010, in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I understand that the topic of sexual assault and exploitation is a difficult one to discuss or perhaps listen to on the radio, but the experience of it, either directly or indirectly, is even more difficult to deal with in our lives. It is in this vein that I am happy to provide some written information, in conjunction with that provided in the interview, for people to use as reference. The article below will address three aspects of sexual assault: First, I will discuss what I believe to be the unimportance of statistics in this kind of discussion, putting forth instead the reality of the crime. Second, I will repeat and expand upon my response to Joe regarding how to keep children safe from sexual abuse. Finally, I will offer some guidelines for those who either have been, or know someone who has been sexually assaulted.
Statistics versus reality
The crime of sexual assault is one that, like many crimes, can happen to anyone at any time, and does not discriminate by age, cultural or ethnic group, or socioeconomic status. In other words, it happens to children under a year old and to women in their 90s; to Christians, atheists and Buddhists; to American citizens as well as undocumented residents; to those who are monetarily wealthy as well as those who are poor; to doctors, engineers and janitors. While the most vulnerable among us are children and women, this type of crime is also perpetrated against men, although in statistically fewer numbers.
When I was asked in the interview about statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault, I didn’t provide an answer. The truth is, I don’t have an answer and did not look it up for the purposes of writing this article. Honestly, I’m not concerned with statistics when it comes to the topic of crimes against vulnerable populations. The fact is, I can give you percentages and fractions to represent the people who have reported these crimes, but those numbers will tell us nothing about how those people are coping, or about how their lives had been shattered and hopefully at some point reconciled. They will also tell us nothing about the people who have not reported – the people who, for a myriad of reasons, will probably never willingly report. Like the teenager who had been raped by her stepfather for 9 years, but didn’t say anything because she was afraid it might cause him to go to jail and since he was the primary breadwinner in the family, they would not have any money to live – she told a classmate, who told an authority figure. Or like the woman from a country in Central America who had been raped repeatedly by her husband whenever he got drunk. She was injured during the act and required medical treatment. It was the hospital that called the police, and when the woman told them what happened and how many times, she was asked why she didn’t report it. Her answer: “He’s my husband. He can do anything he wants to me. At least that’s the way it is where I come from.” Certainly, another mother whose boyfriend was not only forcing himself upon her, but she suspected that he was also molesting her young child wasn’t going to report him – he had a powerful, high-profile career, and no one was going to believe her. The child told his teacher.
These stories are what are important, in my view. They make the heart race longer and faster than any percentages or pie charts ever could. These stories are the reality. They challenge the most highly-trained rape crisis counselor and the most credentialed medical or psychological professional. They anger the most cynical law enforcement officer and cause knots of rage in the stomach of the most seasoned prosecutor. The statistics: Far too often.
Ways to keep children safe
In the interview, Joe asked me about some ways that we can keep children, in particular, safe from sexual assault. Here, I would like to repeat my answer and to expand on it.
- Teach young children the names of their body parts. Don’t worry if the child isn’t quite verbal yet, or isn’t as verbally-skilled as you would like. Just start teaching them. It doesn’t matter if you use medical terms or if you use nicknames, as long as they can identify their private areas, and are not afraid or ashamed to say the names to you or to point out those areas.
- Teach your children about privacy. For example, if only Mommy or Daddy are allowed to give the children baths, then repeat this to them every time you bathe them. You can even turn it into a song. The same for bathroom use. If only Mommy or Daddy is allowed to help them take care of themselves before or after bathroom use, then tell them this. When they get to be older and are going to daycare or preschool, etc., then learn the names of the adults who are responsible for them and teach them that only these people are allowed to help them, e.g., “Only Miss Debra and Mrs. Karen are allowed to help you in the bathroom.”
- Teach your children to never, ever keep a secret. They should be taught that if anyone ever tells them that something is a secret, no matter who it is, they should tell an adult, preferably you or your significant other. Be sure to specify that it doesn’t matter who it is. Unfortunately, those who are most known to molest children are the ones most people wouldn’t suspect, like babysitters, boyfriends, clergy, teachers, and relatives, including siblings. This is why it is important to reiterate, “No matter who it is!!”
- Be careful about whom you allow to have unsupervised contact with your children. This is especially important for single parents to learn, particularly those who are dating. While you may trust your relatively new partner with your safety, the safety of your children is a completely different matter. If you are asking your boyfriend or girlfriend to care for your child while you go to the doctor or for a job interview, ask someone else to help out, as well. Perhaps call a teenage cousin or a neighbor or friend to come over to help out, or to regularly drop by unannounced while you’re gone. If you’re in a relatively new relationship, never leave that person alone with your children. If anything were to happen to your child, you would at least know that you can rule out this particular person as a possible suspect.
- When children get older, sometimes they feel they can’t talk to their parents about certain things, no matter how much we try to convince them they can. That’s why it is important to teach older children, especially those heading into the teenage years, that if they are being sexually harassed or have been sexually assaulted, tell someone – anyone. If they want someone else to report it for them, that’s fine. It is not uncommon for a teen to confide in another, only to have the other teen be smart enough to go to an adult and report it. But even if the child tells their friend to not tell, chances are, the friend will not be able to hold such a terrible secret when someone they care for has been assaulted. Most likely, the friend will tell, so encourage your older child to tell someone if they don’t think they can tell you.
What to do if you have been sexually assaulted
For those who have been subject to sexual assault, you have a number of ways to start the reporting and healing process. You should report this crime as soon as possible by doing any of the following:
- If you go to the hospital for treatment, the hospital personnel will call law enforcement for you and you can make a report then. You will also be given a referral for free or low-cost counseling and other kinds of follow-up you might need;
- You can call your local rape crisis hotline, and they will take you through the steps for reporting, medical treatment and free or low-cost counseling. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the organization, Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) also has advocates who volunteer to accompany the victim to the hospital, or to make a police report or both. They also accompany the victim to court hearings if the person will be required to testify against the perpetrator. Perhaps other rape crisis hotlines across the country provide the same or similar services, or can refer the victim to other places for this kind of support;
- You can start with your therapist, if you already have one and that person will help you call the police. He or she will also give you medical referrals, and referrals to a local shelter if necessary, while you continue your psychological treatment.
- You can go directly to the police and make a report, or even to your district attorney’s office and they will help you make a police report. From either of those places, you will be referred for medical treatment, free or low-cost counseling and emergency shelter, if necessary.
Finally, remember that there are no prescriptions for how a person should feel or behave if they or someone they love becomes a victim of a sexual crime. However you feel is perfectly normal and righteous. Just know that you are not alone, and that with time and treatment, you will start to heal, and maybe eventually be able to help others.
Kathrina L. Rashid, Ph.D. is a psychologist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has worked as a child abuse investigator for over nine years, and is also a cross-cultural consultant on civil and criminal cases.
This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. I am pleased to have met and discussed this important topic with Kathrina. She is no doubt a great asset to BAWAR. We are discussing some future projects including discussions about ethnicity and cultural issues. Kathrina is an expert on the topic and I have long felt that there are not enough authentic discussions occurring on these topics. This post coincides also with two new categories for my blog – Guest Posts and Serious Topics.
If you would like to participate in any of the topics you see discussed on my blog or Blogtalk Radio program let me know.