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One in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. The magnitude of the numbers is likely higher; only 38 percent of child victims disclose. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are sexually abused at a rate seven times that of the non-disabled population. If #MeToo is a realistic indication, nearly 100 percent of women have also been sexually harassed at work or in public.

As I discussed these statistics with a friend, she said, “When I was 12, my mother sent me next door to borrow butter for a recipe. The husband was the only one home. He invited me into the kitchen, then grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I pushed him off, ran home and told my mother. Her response? ‘You must have just misunderstood.’ I never brought it up again but avoided him afterward.”

Experts agree that at their core, both sexual abuse and sexual harassment are about unequal power relationships, whether in the home, school, personal relationships, the workplace and society at large. It can start in childhood, progressing through adolescence, adulthood and into career choices. Our children, girls and boys alike, grow up in a world populated by princesses, superheroes, and, we pray, parents, family members, teachers and mentors who help them find their own power and trust their instincts.

Caring adults can be aware of the signals sent by children. Physical signs may not always be evident, but redness, rashes and swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections or other such symptoms should be investigated. Physical issues associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may be present, while emotional and behavioral signals are more common. Perfectionism, withdrawal and depression, anger and rebellion, sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can all be red flags.

HERLIFE writers also share their perspectives as parents, to bring a more personal voice to this discussion. Nicole Stracek says, “The best advice I have for parents who want to help their children recognize, avoid or deal with sexual abuse and harassment is through communication. Communicating with our children about their bodies so they know that their body belongs to them, and if something feels wrong or off that they have someone safe they can talk to, is crucial. I try to bring up the subject at least once a month. We talk about the people in our lives that we could talk to, someone who would be safe, such as teacher, grandparent, Mom or Dad. We talk about the parts of the body, their proper names and why some are private parts. I think that being as open as possible from as early in their lives as possible is the best way to help avoid or recognize sexual abuse.

“I also would encourage others to discuss how secrets regarding our bodies are not okay, and if anyone were to ever ask them to keep something secret it’s a sign that something isn’t right. Discuss how to say ‘no’ to an adult or even a peer if they feel uncomfortable; teaching them how to leave a situation helps them deal with the situation and get away from it. For example, if someone wants to see or touch their private parts, giving them the words, ‘I need to leave to go potty’ could help. As a survivor of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, I diligently teach my children the importance of body awareness and talking about the body in open way, what private parts are and uncomfortable feelings or situations.”

“I like to think that if my daughter sees my husband’s and my reactions to each other on a daily basis, she can understand what a truly caring relationship is and strive for that,” affirms Lisa Taranto Butler. “Showing her by example is a true-to-life lesson in what to expect from a relationship. Even when we have issues or argue as any couple can do, we work together to make it right and no one has the upper hand. I often tell my daughter that feeling butterflies in her stomach when she is with someone is a good thing, but a knot in her stomach is something entirely different. Go with your gut.”

When our daughters and sons grow up in an environment that supports their internal culture of empowerment, they will be able to foster and encourage change in the greater society. “Aretha Franklin, with her anthem to respect for personhood, helped us understand the way we should treat each other, and her famous voice rings true today,” notes Judy Goppert. Respect and boundaries matter; we teach people how to behave toward us by what we will tolerate, and that’s part of our responsibility in the whole of our lives.

Power. Respect. Equality. Enough. ■

Sources: npr.org, d2l.org, verdict.justia.com and americannursetoday.com.