Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse as an Historical Movement

It’s only been within the last forty years that states have passed laws prohibiting child pornography, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has started keeping records on child sexual assault, and that registries for convicted sex offenders have been established. Sometimes we don’t realize that almost all the progress we have made in preventing childhood sexual abuse has been made very recently.

There are people alive today who are old enough to have gone into a smut shop in the United States during the fifties, sixties, or seventies and found child pornography for legal sale. Sexual predators who are now elderly operated in a very different environment when they were young.

Social awareness of the problem has increased dramatically; laws are continually being proposed and enacted (and challenged) as we struggle to deal with the problem.

The people at the vanguard of this movement are the survivors. It perhaps shouldn’t be that way- that people who were victimized would then not only need to figure out how to survive, function, and heal in their own lives, but be tasked with raising awareness and creating social structures to provide support for themselves and others at the same time.

It is happening. Not fast enough, certainly, but because of all the survivors who make the choice to survive, heal, plow forward, tell their stories, start petitions, write their senators, organize and show up for marches- and so much more- mass consciousness is coming to a concensus about the vital necessity of protecting our children and taking the threat posed by abusers seriously.

It starts with the daily choice to survive. That debate- to be or not to be- is all too familiar to many survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We as a society ask a lot of people who’ve had their most fundamental building block of social relationships- trust- destroyed by a sexual violation during childhood to then create the kind of trusting relationships that they’ll need later to heal. The deck is stacked against them through no fault of their own.

While survivors struggle to find their voices, their dignity, and their wholeness,  the part of society that does not identify as having been abused usually appears to be indifferent. Sometimes there is the feeling of having gotten through to someone who didn’t understand before, but sometimes there is the experience of encountering outright hostility!

Why are some folks so hostile to the idea that survivors of childhood sexual abuse should get support? This hostility rests on the false belief that it is necessary in this world for some people to be exploited.

Almost everyone shares this belief with the exception of a handful of spiritual leaders. So, attempts to win converts to the idea that members should get some help must always be done with the agreement that some other group will not get help. Survivors are put in the position of not just advocating for themselves (hard enough considering the struggles with self-esteem typical of survivors), but advocating over/ instead of other groups. It is implied, understood.

Where did this core belief that it is acceptable to exploit some people- and some groups of people- come from? We all seem to be more or less OK with certain folks on the planet suffering horribly, some of them right in our midst. It is so common, it seems like reality, but it must be said from time to time that it doesn’t have to be this way!

It is rarely examined (much less acknowledged) why one person should receive so much societal support, and another one practically none. The unconscious assumption is that people who “get” deserve to get, and people who don’t “get” don’t deserve to get. The logic goes that you can always tell if someone deserves to have by whether they do or not.

We know it doesn’t make logical sense to expect a child living in the street as a runaway (or throwaway) to always make heathy choices about how to create a better life. We expect that child to learn from mistakes, figure things out, and get back on track with a minimum of social services. We hope that child succeeds.

There are some slums on the planet where millions of people live, all in one slum! Millions are born in the slum and live their entire lives in the slum. Apparently this is acceptable; it comports with our core beliefs. We hope they have the pluck, wherewithal, and drive to succeed. If they don’t, there must be something wrong with their character.

The idea that children’s inherent vulnerability was not to be exploited, but rather protected, is a very recent thoughtform. It is still far from a universal one.

In the USA we protect children (here) from being exploited for their labor. We provide education of a sort to almost all. It was not always that way, and is certainly not that way in much of the world. In the last forty years we have made great strides in protecting our children (here) from sexual abuse. But why is there any resistance to this at all?

It is the same belief that says that exploitation makes the world go ’round. In other words, it is impossible to believe both that it is OK to exploit children in certain other countries but it is NOT OK to exploit children here in our own… at the same time. Psychologically, we think we’ve got the boundaries figured out, but spiritually, it is another matter.

The person or group in power gets to exploit. We believe that, or it couldn’t happen. We all believe it, or it couldn’t happen everywhere.

The people and groups in power want you to buy into that belief- that the way of the world is that some people and groups get exploited (and other people and groups do the exploiting). That’s just the way it is.

In the olden days, it wasn’t too hard to figure out who had power and who didn’t. These days most governments derive their power through the consent of the governed. Despite the spread of democracy to the far corners of the globe, there are a tremendous number of people being exploited! How is that possible? How can it be that people all over the world who have the right and ability to vote into law whatever they want decide that huge groups of people should continue to be exploited?

At the very core of the system is the dream of everyone that one day he or she will grow up to be the exploiter. We don’t identify with the victim, we identify with the exploiter. Even if we are the victim, or exactly like the victim, our hopes and dreams are all tied up with the exploiter. We are bound- morally shackled- not just to an economic or political system, but to a conviction that we are each other’s enemy.

“Help” is something that costs something for me to give, if we are separate. If we are connected, then my helping you is the same as my helping myself.

If you want laws, public monies, and social programs to prevent childhood sexual abuse, then it takes something from me unless I identify as a survivor, right?

What if everyone who needed help deserved it based on their needing it, not on any other deservability criteria? They deserve help because they’re a person who needs it! Weird, huh?

What if that were our core belief instead of “some people deserve to be exploited?” It would mean that a group dedicated to preventing sexual abuse of children in Tampa would not have to prove itself more deserving than a group dedicated to treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Tampa. Or that people would not have to decide which was more deserving- preventing sexual abuse or preventing physical abuse. Or have to decide between Tampa and Orlando, say. Or Mumbai for that matter.

It would mean that a person recovering from being abused and exploited would not have to get adjusted to becoming an exploiter as part of a successful treatment and rehabilitation.

Certainly the progress of the movement against childood sexual abuse can be correlated with the other liberation movements of the last half century. Specific causal connections and debts of gratitude may be the topic of a future post. I think the women’s movement must get the lioness’s share of credit, though. I think it was greatly responsible for the three-step process of getting the train rolling: 1) What happened? 2) What does it mean? and 3) What do we want?

Naming the experience took community. It took sisterhood. It is the most essential step in order for anything else to happen. It is as true for individuals and intimate relationships as it is for liberation movements; the question of what happened must be asked and answered.

Figuring out what the experience meant was the next step. Sexual abuse happened, and this is how it affected us. It was not “nothing.” It was not “no big deal.” And it certainly was not a few isolated incidents. It was understood that childhood sexual abuse was very common and very damaging.

And then the activism. And of course all three stages are still happening today. Preventing childhood sexual abuse is not generally thought of as a women’s issue in a feminist sense. Protecting children is a cause that most people are vaguely for, and any parent might be vigorously for regardless of political leanings.

And of course boys are sexually abused too. In the USA about one out of every six or seven boys is sexually abused, and about two out of every six or seven girls are. Whenever anyone breaks the silence, he or she is speaking out on behalf of all victims. It is political in that whole groups of people are demanding to be heard (and that’s what politics is- how people get along).

What keeps it political and stops it from being revolutionary is that it stops short of challenging the core beliefs that allowed it to happen in the first place.


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