In meeting friends who have experienced sexual abuse as children, as well as reading books and research, I have learned a few things about reducing the likelihood of sexual abuse. One of those things I’ve learned is that education is one way to help reduce abuse.
The sort of education that is appropriate at a young age includes the proper names of body parts, understanding that there are parts of the body that are special and not for public discussion or viewing, and bodily autonomy, or the ability to have a say in what happens to their body.
Teaching the proper names of body parts is not too difficult. One easy way is discussing what you are doing while changing a diaper or teaching while bathing. Starting with a young child is helpful as the parent can become comfortable with terminology while the child learns. While such teaching could have potential to be embarrassing if a precocious two-year old decided to over-share, the teaching that some parts are not intended for public discussion or viewing can help alleviate that concern. By the time a child potty trains, they are usually old to know the names of their body parts, including genitals, and also know that one should be discreet in discussing them.
When I grew up there was an emphasis on modesty to keep the private parts covered. While wearing clothing that covers the parts of the body that would be considered private is certainly helpful, it’s not fully sufficient. A child should know that it is also inappropriate for other people to touch those areas over clothing as well. And while it is common for children to show and tell with their genitalia, an appropriate response is a reminder that those areas are private.
It is important to note that there are times and places for help to be offered, such as in the case of a medical need, or for young children, assistance with bathing or dressing or toileting when needed.
Finally, it is helpful to give children say about who does what with their body. Ordering a child to give a hug when they do not want to do so teaches them that their discomfort with someone else’s desires is not sufficient to refuse. This leaves them more vulnerable to someone being abusive. It is entirely possible to teach a child to be polite and respectful without taking away their ability to make a choice about how others may interact with their body.
These things are not a guarantee that a child will not experience abuse. Another day, I will share some of the things I have learned about what to do if that does happen.