As the case of former House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert highlights, it is not unusual for athletes to tolerate years of abuse before coming forward.
The delay in reporting is particularly acute among males, with a 2003 book (1) finding that it takes males, on average, twenty-seven years to disclose the abuse to anyone.
Harassment has a silencing effect and, as one expert on sexual abuse of males in sports notes, has a high shame factor, particularly among boys.
Children are often afraid to report it because of its degrading nature, or because they fear getting the perpetrator in to trouble, or do not want to risk their spot on the team, or because they don't think an adult will believe them (that was the reason, according to the sister of an alleged victim in the Hastert case, her brother didn't tell her until years later).
Families play an important role in socializing children. Families are a place where children learn survival skills and learn how to solve problems. In caring for and nurturing your children, there are a number of values you can instill, skills you can teach, and behaviors you can model as part of an abuse prevention program.
It is therefore important that you talk about harassment and abuse with your children and to teach them:
- the difference between friendly teasing and bullying;
- the difference between flirting and harassment;
- the difference between proper and improper touching; and
- how to deal with harassment or abuse if they encounter it, because ignoring the situation can often lead to a cycle of ongoing harassment/abuse and victimization.
What to tell your child
Here are some of the things experts say you should tell your child:
Most physical contact is okay. It is okay for a coach to touch your child where the contact is necessary as part of the instruction process (such as teaching a wrestling move) or to provide for his or her safety (such as spotting in gymnastics). Often touching -- like hugging, or high 5s -- takes place as part of celebrating something that has happened: a home run, a big win, a soccer goal. Touching is okay if it is respectful of a person's personal boundaries and comfort level, is done in public, and is nurturing (done to provide comfort, reassurance, and support).
"Sexualized" touching is not okay. When a hug becomes fondling, a kiss on the cheek becomes a long kiss on the lips, and a pat on the rear becomes a seductive stroking of a body part, the touching has become sexual. Your child needs to know that he or she may be confused as to whether the line has been crossed into sexualized touching. If she is, she should talk with you or someone she trusts about the touching.
Any contact with private parts is wrong. Make clear to your child that no adult is permitted to touch his or her private parts (penis/vagina/anus/breasts), except for health reasons, and they should not touch an adult's private parts, even if asked. If he or she is confused about whether a touch is okay, he or she should ask someone he or she trusts.
He or she has the right to say no. Your child should know that her body belongs to him or her and he or she has the right to say no to anything that makes him or her uncomfortable.
Improper touching is not the child's fault. Your child needs to know that if an adult touches their private parts, or asks the child to touch theirs, it is not the child's fault.
Sexual contact should not be kept secret. If an adult touches your child sexually and says, "Let's keep this our secret," instead of complying, he or she needs to tell someone.
Whoever he or she tells will listen. Make sure your child knows that, if he or she tells you about improper sexual contact, you will believe what he or she tells you. If he or she doesn't want to tell you, your child should know he or she can talk to any other adult he or she trusts, whether it is his or her favorite teacher, the school's guidance counselor, or his or her minister or rabbi.
Check to see if your children have understood you by playing "What If" games in which you discuss specific situations and ask the child to participate in identifying solutions.
As a society, we don't talk openly about sex. In most homes, we tend to learn sex as a second language, and not as part of our regular vocabulary. We sing songs with our kids like "Head and shoulders, knees and toes" which skip the important body parts in between shoulders and knees. Our children play with dolls that don't have vaginas or penises, making a mystery of an essential part of our bodies.
If you want your child to tell you about sexual abuse, you need to be able to speak openly about healthy sexuality in your home:
Become educated. You need to know about aspects of sexuality like birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual intercourse, homosexuality, masturbation, and abortion. This will help you to feel more at ease when your child asks you a question about sex.
Teach anatomy. Your child should be taught accurate labels for penis, vagina, anus, breasts, and so on. If we want children to talk openly, we need to give them the words to use. Teaching your child about sexual anatomy also tells them that their parents know about these body parts, and can talk about them.
Don't make sex a taboo subject. Work to ensure that your household is not silent on the subject of sexuality and that you do not consider it off-limits as a topic for discussion.
- Provide opportunities for conversation.
- Encourage questions whenever and wherever they surface, not just at specified times and places like the supper table.
- Let your children know that nothing is off limits, that there is no such thing as a stupid question.
- If you don't know the answer, say so and let your child know you will try to find out.
- Make a point of initiating discussion with your children about sexuality, rather than waiting for questions to arise. If the reaction is disinterest, postpone the discussion, but make sure your children know they can bring the subject up at any time, and that you're willing to talk in a non-judgmental fashion.
- Model appropriate behavior and attitudes. It is important to model appropriate behaviors in your home. Demonstrate that violence -- emotional or physical -- is not acceptable in solving personal problems. Make a point of building your child's self-esteem at every opportunity.
There are ways to reduce sexual abuse by coaches, but, as a tireless advocate the past sixteen years for sexual safety for youth athletes, I know that it requires a team effort by every stakeholder in sports, not just parents, but athletes, coaches, administrators, and national organizations. Together we can make a difference in the lives of children so that they don't end up scarred for life.
Simply put, apologies to the victims of abuse, such as offered by former Speaker Hastert at his sentencing yesterday, are too little, too late.
(1) Spiegel, Josef. Sexual Abuse of Males: The SAM Model of Theory and Practice. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003, p. 49.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.