Millions of people were glued to the HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, but many turned away. Some turned away because they believe these were false allegations, but others – particularly parents – turned away because they just could not emotionally handle the words of the young men describing how easy it was for a predator to seduce a child in front of their parents and the world.
This is understandable. Healthy people are wired to not think of children in a sexual way. But please don’t look away – it’s this aversion that gives predators cover. Find the courage to work through your discomfort and make talking about sexual health and safety an important part of your family life.
Here are basics that adults need to know:
- As Oprah Winfrey helped make so clear in the special that aired after Leaving Neverland, sex abuse does not always hurt! In fact, for many kids, being singled out by a high-status adult, receiving special attention, affection and gifts may be a highlight in their lives.
- Predators seduce victims through a gradual process of benign touch, progressing to touching of genitals, then to sexual acts.
- Many acts of sexual abuse do not cause physical pain — it does not feel like abuse.
- Some acts of sexual abuse cause physical pleasure, which can be extraordinarily confusing for a victim
Here are some basics that children need to know:
- There is a difference between privacy and secrecy – as kids mature, they earn the right to privacy, but children should NEVER keep secrets from their parents for more than a very short time (like knowing about a surprise party).
- Their genitals will feel good when touched in certain ways. Most kids figure this out for themselves when they discover masturbation. This feeling just means that their body is working right — it is NEVER to be confused with love at any age!
- Their parents are always there to help or answer questions.
- A grownup might look uncomfortable occasionally talking about sex, because they are used to sex being private.
- If a parent can’t answer a question immediately, they’ll find an answer and communicate it to the child in an age-appropriate way.
The level of detail will vary by age. If parents provide an emotionally safe space for discussion, the questions of their children can guide the topics and detail.
The phrase, “sexual abuse” is certainly correct from a legal and moral standpoint, but too often it lacks accuracy and confuses children. As young boys, the men interviewed in Leaving Neverland did not feel abused until much later in life. I’ve experienced adult women speaking to me after a workshop telling me that until they learned that day that sexual arousal was an autonomic reflex, they had always felt complicit in their abuse.
Child and adolescent victims lack knowledge and language to understand; but this knowledge and language is a gift all parents can give. It may help prevent your child from being entrapped or from feeling responsible if lightning strikes.
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.