Media outlets continue to cover the horrifying sexual abuse former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar committed against young athletes that sought his care. At his trial, 156 victims spoke, recounting similar stories of how they went to Nassar to receive his care for sports injuries only to be sexually assaulted and told it was a form of treatment. One of the survivors, 17-year-old Jessica Thomashow, told the court: “He first molested me when I was nine (…) before I had braces, and when I still played with my American Girl dolls. Larry Nassar preyed on us for his own pleasure, leaving in his wake traumatized and broken girls.”
Reports of Nassar’s abuse of 256 girls over the past two decades has caused many to wonder why don’t children disclose sexual abuse to a trusted adult when the abuse is happening?
There are a number of reasons why children stay quiet about abuse. These can include the following:
- They don’t understand what is happening to them
- They are ashamed
- The believe what is happening is their fault and that they deserve it
- They are afraid you won’t believe them
- They are afraid that they will get in trouble
It is important to keep in mind that sexual abuse is a form of power-based violence, meaning that perpetrators intentionally prey upon those with less power. This is a reason why abuse against children is so pervasive. We live in a culture where children are expected to submit to the authority of adults in their lives. When children experience abuse, they are often confused and uncomfortable with what is happening; however, they are taught to obey adults. In addition, perpetrators often control children with the threat of violence (against the child or someone they love), or the threat of shame by telling them that if people find out they will lose the love, affection, or praise of others.
The sad truth is also that often when children do tell someone, they are not believed. This could be because the parent is afraid of the reality that someone could be hurting their child, or because the child is accusing someone the parent doesn’t believe could do such a thing.
There are ways that parents can be proactive about protecting their children from abuse, and we encourage you to consider the following:
- Teach children about boundaries and body autonomy
- Pay attention when a child tells you about an adult that makes them uncomfortable
- Believe them if they tell you something harmful is happening to them
- Remind your child often that you love and support them no matter what, and that there is nothing they could tell you to change that
In addition to parents, it is also the responsibility of institutional representatives who receive disclosures to take the disclosure seriously and act on it. Our first concern must be to protect children, even if it requires us confronting hard truths about a friend, colleague, or loved one. It is not a safe bet to excuse sexual abuse and sweep it under the rug. Doing so allows people like Nassar to continue abusing countless children. We have a choice between protecting children and protecting sexual abusers; which choice will we make moving forward?