Child sexual abuse has long been a taboo topic. Only in recent years has it come to the surface in public discourse. Stories of children abused by adults in positions of trust or authority are frequently the focus of headlines, talk shows and television dramas. There is a growing consciousness about the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse.
Yet, for many adults, sexual abuse is still a difficult matter to discuss -- a subject that inspires fear and misunderstanding. For most of us, it is nearly inconceivable how an adult could sexually exploit and traumatize a child.
One reaction to the increasing awareness of child sexual abuse is ambivalence about touch when it comes to children. Many professionals have become reluctant to provide a hug, a pat on the head or a hand on the shoulder to the kids in their care. There is often a concern about protecting individuals and institutions from false accusations of abuse. The fear is understandable, although the reality is that children rarely initiate false reports of sexual abuse.
Historically speaking, we are in the early stages of confronting child sexual abuse. As a culture, we are still stumbling around, trying to react sensibly to this unthinkable threat. Avoiding appropriate, nurturing touch to children is not the solution, however.
Touch is like food and water to a developing child. Warm, affectionate physical touch is critical in developing a healthy attachment between parent and infant -- helping to establish a long-term sense of worth and security. Healthy touch also supports a child's physical growth, brain development and emotional resilience. Infants deprived of human touch can die. As children grow, their need for healthy, physical touch decreases, but doesn't go away.
Touch becomes dangerous when it is toxic. When touch is violating instead of nurturing, it erodes the development of self-protective intuition and healthy boundaries. The emotional aftermath of child sexual abuse can be long lasting, and may lead to an adulthood burdened by psychiatric challenges, relationship difficulties, addiction and generational cycles of abuse.
The solution is not to withhold nurturing touch from children -- it is to develop a more informed understanding of touch. There are good resources in our community to help.
The Memphis Child Advocacy Center provides training in prevention of child sexual abuse through its research-informed Stewards of Children program. The training teaches simple steps parents and adults who work with children can take to keep kids safe. It helps parents talk effectively with their kids about personal boundaries and sexual abuse. Stewards of Children also instructs institutions on ways to protect children through organization-wide training and smart policy. For example, good policy ensures that interactions between one child and one adult, if they happen at all, can always be interrupted and observed. With informed policy, universally understood parameters and organizational transparency, hugs need not be outlawed.
There are other resources available for parents, volunteers and professionals who work with children. Neighborhood Christian Centers Inc., in collaboration with The Urban Child Institute, is promoting healthy touch through its "Touch, Talk, Read, Play" program, which acknowledges nurturing touch is as important as reading and talking to your infant.
It can be a little heartbreaking, maybe even frustrating, that touch has become such a loaded issue. The good news is that we are moving in a positive direction. Research indicates that nationwide rates of child sexual abuse are decreasing. Parents are learning how to talk with their kids about personal boundaries. Organizations throughout Shelby County are employing prevention training, transparency and informed policy. We are on our way to a community that is safer for kids.
Consider helping make our community safer and healthier for children by getting involved. Together we can transform our community.
Beryl Wight is communications coordinator for the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. Contact her at bwight@MemphisCAC.org.
For more information about sexual abuse prevention training and policy consultation, visit MemphisCAC.org. For information about the "Touch, Talk, Read, Play" initiative, visit ncclife.org.