One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before turning 18
Many parents don't talk about sex abuse because they don't know what to say
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on April 29, 2014.
It was a typical PTA meeting at my daughters’ elementary school with talk of budgets, fundraisers and the upcoming school calendar, until a guest speaker stood up to talk, shattering the banality of the meeting with a story no parent wants to hear.
Jill Starishevsky, a New York City assistant district attorney in the child abuse and sex crimes bureau and author of the book “My Body Belongs to Me,” shared a story about an upper-middle-class New York family, a story that still gives me chills two years after I first heard it.
A mom goes shopping, leaving her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son home. The daughter is miserable and moping around the house so much that her brother asks her, “What’s your problem? Why are you so sad all the time?” said Starishevsky. He then says something like, “It’s not like Grandpa … is boinking you.”
At that moment, the 11-year-old realizes that her grandfather, her mother’s father, is doing to her brother what he has been doing to her for the past three years. The children decide they need to tell their mother when she gets home.
And they do.
She cries and cries. She hugs them and then cries some more.
“And when she stops crying, she says, ‘I’m so sorry. I thought he would stop,’ ” said Starishevsky.
I couldn’t believe it either when I first heard it. Her father had sexually abused her when she was younger and she never told anyone about it. Now he was doing the same thing to her children.
Realizing she couldn’t be silent any longer, she called a family meeting to finally tell her two brothers and her two sisters what had happened to her and what was happening to her children.
When Starishevsky tells the story to an audience, this is the moment where she asks, “Does anyone know how this story ends?”
I couldn’t imagine what was to come.
The two brothers and two sisters reveal they, too, were sexually abused by their father when they were younger, and no one told anyone. “No one knew,” said Starishevsky.
When I first heard that story, it was impossible to comprehend how no one in that family told another sibling, friend, parent or teacher about what was happening to them. But after listening to Starishevsky, it’s easy to see why.
Many of us aren’t talking to our children about sexual abuse, even when the statistics make it crystal clear why we should be: As many as one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We talk to our children about safety all the time – we cover stranger danger, pool safety, how to cross the street and the list goes on, but when it comes to body safety, we go silent.
“We all know that it should be taught. We all think it’s scary of what could happen to our child, but most parents, most good parents, don’t know how to have the discussion, so they just ignore it.”
A book is born
When Starishevsky’s first child turned 3, she knew she needed to have the conversation but didn’t know how. “I was a little embarrassed because I was a sex crimes prosecutor and I didn’t know what to say.”
She looked online and went to the library, but couldn’t find any book appropriate for a toddler. So she waited for her daughter’s 3-year check-up and asked her doctor what to say and how to say it.
Why, she wondered, wasn’t information available on his website, she asked.
“My doctor shrugged his shoulders and he’s like, ‘Taboo, no one can talk about it.’”
That night, she went home and wrote a poem for her daughter, emphasizing that the little girl’s body is private and that if someone touches her private parts, she should tell her mommy or daddy or a teacher right away.
When she read it to her husband, he said, “That’s not a poem. It’s a book. You need to write it.”
So, in between prosecuting sex crimes and mothering her three children, Starishevsky wrote a straightforward book targeting 3- to 8-year-olds with rhymes and simple illustrations. Getting a publisher turned out to be easier than expected, but there was one problem.
In the book, Starishevsky doesn’t just allude to the abuse. She includes it.
“My uncle’s friend came over and sat down next to me, and touched me in that place that no one else can see,” she writes, with illustrations of a fully clothed child sitting near the uncle’s friend, who is also fully clothed. You don’t see the abuse but it’s clear it just happened.
The publisher wanted that line to come out, according to Starishevsky. “They said, ‘Well we don’t think parents would like the book with the line in. You have to take it out. Allude to it but you can’t actually say it.’ ”
Starishevsky refused and the publisher backed out, so she self-published the book in 2009, and eventually got the attention of Oprah Winfrey’s television producers. She appeared in a segment on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2011.
Three years later, she landed a publisher, Free Spirit Publishing, which is publishing the book, with updated illustrations, in May. The hope, Starishevsky said, is that through Free Spirit, the book can be provided on a larger scale to schools and advocacy organizations, and may ultimately be published in different languages.
The book also inspired Michael Solomon, a New York father of two and co-founder of companies that manage the careers of musicians, producers and tech professionals, to self-fund a video verson of Starishevsky’s “My Body Belongs to Me.”
The video, which has been viewed more than 110,000 times on YouTube, is also available in Spanish, French and Swedish, with plans to add more languages when possible.
The goal, said Solomon, is “ultimately giving parents and educators an opportunity to inform kids for free anywhere, anytime.”
How to have the conversation
One of the biggest reasons why parents don’t talk to their children about sexual abuse, Starishevsky said, is because they’re afraid they’re going to scare their children.
“I think that fear comes from not knowing what the conversation’s about,” she said, adding that it isn’t about sex or explaining in graphic detail what someone might do to a child.
“It’s about, ‘This is your body,’” she said. It’s important to teach children which parts of their body are private and that if someone else does see or touch them, the child should tell a trusted adult.
“It’s really just an empowering conversation,” she added.
It can’t happen to my kids
Another of Starishevsky’s top 10 reasons why parents don’t talk with their children about sexual abuse is because they think it can’t happen to them.
When she was writing her book, she passed it around to friends, colleagues, even judges to get their input. One of the people who read it was her husband’s friend, who is a lawyer.
He told her it was a great book and that it would help a lot of children but that he would never read it to his then 6- and 8-year-old sons.
“This is never going to happen to my kids so I don’t need to read it to them,” he told her.
“Parents have these blinders on, thinking it can’t happen in my neighborhood, and unfortunately it can. It happens anywhere.”
Too many parents also think strangers are the biggest threat to their children, and so if they teach their kids about stranger danger, they’re protected. But 93% of the time in sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is not a stranger but someone the child knows, according to the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.
“It’s someone you are trusting your child with, whether that’s the coach or the babysitter or mom’s boyfriend … so having the stranger danger conversation isn’t going to teach the child the skills they need to know.”
No secrets and no forced hugs
Starishevsky’s “aha” moment as a prosecutor came when she talked to victims and learned there was one reason why children never told anyone about abuse that came up fairly consistently: “He said it was our secret.”
To counter that, Starishevsky recommends banning secrets altogether, telling your children that your family doesn’t believe in secrets, and encouraging your children to tell you if anyone asks them to keep a secret.
Parents should also never force children to be demonstrative in their affection. Don’t force your kids to give hugs, she said. “If we don’t teach our children that it’s OK for them to say no … then they don’t know that they can do that.”
Arming our children with the right words and empowering them to use those words is a way to try to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place, said Starishevsky.
Ever since my girls, now ages 6 and 8, were old enough to understand they have private parts, I’ve been talking to them about their bodies, although I realized after listening to Starishevsky two years ago, I wasn’t talking to my children enough.
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So since then, I bring up the topic fairly regularly, especially before a sleepover or the start of a new sports program or other after school activity.
We’ve had the conversation so much that my older daughter cuts me off before I finish with, “Yeah mom, we know.”
Every time Starishevsky hears a story like mine or gets an e-mail from readers who plan to talk to their kids about sexual abuse, she is over the moon.
“Oh my god, that’s all I want … that parents get that this is an issue they need to start addressing.”