On the evening of September 1, six panelists, one visual artist, two ASL interpreters and hundreds of people from around the U.S. — most of them survivors themselves — logged onto Zoom to participate in a 90-minute town hall about sexual violence against children, as part of the Survivors’ Agenda.
As each of the panelists introduced themselves over video, many audience members joined in on our meeting’s chat window, all saying (or typing) some variation of the words: I am a survivor.
Those are powerful words that carry both enormous weight and surprising power. The weight, from having survived the trauma of sexual violence as a child. The power, from releasing the shame that comes with it, and shifting the blame back to where it’s always belonged: to the perpetrators and the systems that enable them.
Sexual violence against children affects children everywhere at a staggering rate. A decade of research from my organization in over 20 countries found that — in the countries we surveyed — one in four girls experience physically forced or coerced sexual intercourse. But girls are not the only ones who experience high rates of sexual violence — in the U.S., for example, it is estimated that about 10 percent of boys do, as well.
But the silence around this issue is still deafening. Less than half of all survivors report the abuse or seek services that may be able to help them. And that was a theme that came up over and over from our panelists and from our participants: there is still great stigma in reporting sexual violence.
When a child is sexually abused, they can then experience what Rachael Denhollander told us about: a trauma response ranging from shame to fear, avoidance to guilt, depression to substance abuse — all to escape the pain they’ve undergone. This, and the lack of effective systems that help the prevention or response to sexual violence, is often what keeps children silent. It’s what Sarah Cooper shared about having been trafficked. She was groomed online by her perpetrator, and it was five years before she was able to say out loud that she was a survivor of sexual violence.
Brian Toale, another panelist, told us that he spent most of his adult life thinking he was irreparably damaged. For something someone did to him. Tabitha Mpamira shared a similar story — that she felt her value was reduced to almost nothing when she first reported the truth.
But one thing all of us have learned, and one thing we have in common in our own, very personal journeys, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can claim back our power by putting the blame where it belongs, by understanding that we are not defined by those experiences.
Ashley Cook spoke about that. She spoke about the need for us to bring this topic into the light, about having difficult — and intentional — conversations with our loved ones, including our children, about how to prevent this. But our conversations have to be frequent. And they have to be far-reaching. And they should also take place beyond our homes. It still boggles my mind that in the U.S., and in most countries around the world, there is still not one set of federal guidelines for organizations working with children (whether those are schools, churches or sports organizations) to prevent sexual violence against children.
But in all of this, there is still good news: sexual violence against children is preventable. Each of us can help play a direct role in addressing it. These resources here are a good place to start learning how.
At one point in our evening, I asked our panelists and participants to reflect on one question: what does a world free from sexual violence look like? The answers from our chat room overwhelmed me. Participants said it would be a world in which they’d feel believed. Warm. Curious. Creative. Fearless. Vibrant. Colorful. Hopeful. Safe. And free.
It was an inspiring night. It made me see that there’s safety in numbers. And power in the same. As Tarana Burke, who co-founded this movement, said: we are resourceful, we are resilient, and we are ready.
Let’s work together. And let’s keep this conversation going. Whether you are a survivor or an ally, I ask you to join us later this month at the Survivors’ Summit, to keep learning, and expand on so much that we already know.