A Call for De-stigmatization by Edda Olsson

It's late. The sky outside is dark but gloomy, the surrounding skyscrapers serving as a constant reminder that somebody is always awake. Your arms are holding on tight to your teddy bear, as they have been so many nights before, permanently denting a line of fur, from where you've grasped on for life. Where you’re grasping on for life. You can’t sleep. 

The sun is shining after a long and dark winter as you’re on the way to work. Despite longing for the sun, physically craving it, you walk around the light avenues, past the closest bus stop: a conflicting force of habit. You need sunshine to warm your skin, but shivering is better than the alternative. You’d rather freeze to your bone and feel nothing in your body as the numbness overtakes you than the alternative. You feel it all the time anyway. Avoidance is always the safest bet. 

Your hand feels like it is tangled into the chair, your right wrist left with little place to move. It feels cool and heavy, almost as if it's grounding you and the world around you, but the handcuff is just as much a painful reminder. Where it all went wrong. That it all went wrong. That it really wasn't your fault. Or was it? It probably was. It should never have turned out like this. 

You carry it around with you like a burn mark, forever etched into your skin. It's funny how a little scar, a single hour of your life, can leave you feeling so naked and alone and like nothing at all. Your therapist says this isn't really funny. You're using humor to cope again. She's right, you really do, do that a lot. Among other things... The stigma is no longer a stigma when it becomes your way of life. 

The stigmatization of child sexual abuse and exploitation effects everyone and will continue to do so until we depower it, putting people before issues, victims before oblivion. Stigmas can be understood as “characteristics that are devalued in a particular social context and affect people in negative ways” (Association for Psychological Science, 2018). These can be external and internal, impacting not only how the world perceives us, but also how we perceive ourselves. Historically, stigmas have been defined as physical marks, such as one from a pointed instrument or from burning the skin with a hot iron. These stigmas marked a person as inferior, such as a slave or a criminal, as to let everyone know just from looking at them that they aren’t equally worth (ibid). The stigmas from the past and those we are faced with today are not so different however, as although not physically burned on, stigmas attach themselves to us just like scars and can be just as hard to remove. This is a reality that children that have been sexually abused or exploited have no choice but to face.  

Approximately one in ten children will have been sexually abused before the age of eighteen. Of these children, around sixty percent of victims never tell anyone about what they have been subjected to, and consequently, how this trauma has, or still is, impacting them (Darkness to Light, 2015). Not only can this be detrimental to their mental health and overall wellbeing, but silence on child sexual abuse and exploitation, exacerbated and induced by its stigmatization, perpetuates a vicious and ugly cycle of abuse that needs to be discussed in order to be prevented.

Stigmatized issues, such as mental health, are increasingly being challenged, with various people and institutions speaking up about the importance of it as well as the importance of actually talking about this. Although still faced with many barriers, tackling the stigmatization of mental health has alleviated public and, just as pivotal, private discussions on such topics, a trend which we need to follow when dealing with stigmas on child sexual abuse and exploitation. After all, how can we prevent children from being sexually abused if we can’t even talk about it? Although a stellar example in itself of what the destigmatization of an issue can entail, there is also a vital connection between mental health and child sexual abuse that needs to be highlighted. What many people don’t realize, in fact, is the extent to which being abused as a child impacts not only the child’s own mental health and well being at the moment, but how this can deeply affect them as adults as well. With associated consequences such as dissociation, posttraumatic stress disorder and much more, the ways in which traumas from being abused as a child express themselves is inevitably linked to mental health. 

As a consequence of sexual abuse, many children are affected by sleep disturbances and intrusive symptoms as well as tendencies of avoidance, in which they consciously (or not) avoid instances or places associated with the abuse. They may be up all night unable to sleep, distracted by flashbacks or perhaps walking a longer route to the bus stop avoiding a specific location associated with harm. Children who have been sexually abused sometimes reenact the abuse they have been subjected to on other people. This is also the case for adults, as the trauma is truly intergenerational. Not only does this entail another abused individual but this embodies the issue of the stigmatization in and of itself: until we recognize the immense affect that sexual abuse has on children, and the ways in which this harms them and may cause them to harm others, we cannot prevent it. 

Although it is honestly quite sad and disappointing that its relation to the stigmatization of another issue may be what actually enables people to speak up about this problem, it is an opportunity that needs to be seized. Although another platform should ideally not be necessary for people to recognize the importance of destigmatizing child sexual abuse and exploitation, we have a chance to build onto another strong growing movement, and we need to grab hold of this and ensure that it becomes understood how this cycle really affects us all. 

 With that being said, a key difference is important to take note of. Destigmatization does not mean normalization. Unlike certain other movements where key political figures have contributed to the normalization of certain unacceptable actions, when others have been attempting to work against this, it needs to be made clear that shining a light on child sexual abuse and the extent to which people are impacted, does not leave any room for its normalization. Here it is also important to note that a child is a child, whether she/he be three years old or sixteen years old. Normalization, regardless of age, cannot be tolerated. 

In spite of the pessimistic tone of this message, the urgency that has hopefully and rightfully so been conveyed, it must be mentioned that regardless of the heavy stigmas on the matter, various organizations, such as Childhood, work tirelessly to protect children from abuse and to prevent this all together. It is thanks to organizations like Childhood that we can see what child maltreatment looks like and how this is tackled in different countries to understand what the gravity of the issue really is, as for example seen through its work with the Economist creating the Out of the Shadows Index. As long as there are people striving to work against such atrocities there is hope, but we cannot neglect our role in this. Destigmatization would entail open and honest dialogues, understanding about what this issue is and therefore also how we can prevent it. But for this to be as open as possible, there needs to be a cultural shift in how we speak of such matters, what we associate with such matters and the way in which we listen. Perhaps that is most important of all: we need to listen and act on what we hear. 

The Future Generation Brings Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Into the Spotlight by Skylar Wallison

            Today’s children make up a generation of strength, courage, and awareness, in an era of prejudice and instability. Through social media, school led fundraisers, and constant activism, the future generation is creating a safe and progressive world and taking part in combating world issues. As a rising high school sophomore in New York City, I wanted to use this opportunity as an intern at the World Childhood Foundation to speak about the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation. This June, I produced an 11 part questionnaire  (See index) regarding the world issue of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, which three of my female fifteen year old friends curated responses to. These girls all attend the same school, which their similar opinions and knowledge on this topic can be attributed to. They attend a private school on the upper-east side of Manhattan, that generally discusses global issues such as climate change or sexism, however Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation has never been touched on. The Questionnaire covered topics ranging from the role of the United Nations in this issue, to the significance of acknowledging the issue itself. The interviewees were not permitted to carry out any research prior to answering the questions, nor engage in conversation during the response process. This would guarantee that their responses were genuine and not influenced by an outside source.

            Childhood has branches in Sweden, USA, Brazil and Germany, but supports children globally. The World Childhood Foundation was founded by Queen Silvia of Sweden in 1999, and strives to defend the rights of all children and promote better living conditions for vulnerable and exploited children at risk all over the world. Childhood fights to give children the opportunity to develop into strong, secure and responsible human beings. Childhood provides funding to projects such as: Safe Horizon, The Economist Out of the Shadows Index, and The Bridge for Youth. Childhood’s mission is to protect the human rights of all children and grant them the opportunity to have a successful, safe, and happy life. The World Childhood Foundation believes that at least 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before turning eighteen, and is dedicated to changing this statistic. By providing funding for many organizations rather than being a service provider itself, Childhood has a bigger outreach and impact on the issue of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

            The intention behind this questionnaire was to determine if the future generation was aware of this global issue and inclined to help progress toward a Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation free world. As one interviewee answered, “I think that our generation is definitely more aware than the past in [the] way that we know [Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation] is wrong. I do think that there is still a lot of room for improvement and it is necessary to continue spreading awareness.” By recognizing that there is work to be done on combating this topic, the interviewee is making strides towards combating this issue. When youth “strides” increase, the outreach and influence of this movement also increases, thus making it more powerful and successful. As Queen Silvia of Sweden stated in 1999 when she founded the World Childhood Foundation, “I have founded an organization. My biggest wish is to shut it down soon.” With the participation of the future generation, the impending “shut down” of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is in sight.

            Another important factor of combating Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is responsibility and accountability. For example, the responsibility of parents and educators to educate their children on this matter, or children being accountable for their own privacy and safety from Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation on the internet. When asked the question, “What can parents and educators do to encourage their children to be aware of child sexual abuse and exploitation?” One interviewee answered, “I think just teaching children from a young age what is appropriate and what is not coming from an adult so they know exactly when something is not ok. I also think it is important to encourage children to speak up if something happens to them or they feel uncomfortable and help them find people that they feel comfortable talking to so the problem can be stopped at its root.” Another interviewee answered, “I think that by educating children on the definitions of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation, that they would understand the gravity of sexually exploitative or abusive encounters, instead of self hatred being internalized for the rest of their lives.” The pattern here is that children believe that it is the parent’s responsibility to familiarize their children with the issue and be supportive when such an incident occurs. By starting at a young age, children are educated at the source, and thus more aware of their safety from Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation as they grow up.

            The internet is the tool of the future, and propels constant learning and outreach for children and adults alike. However, the internet brings challenges in combating Child Sexual Abuse because its accessibility promotes cyber trafficking, child pornography, and child sexual grooming. When asked the question, “How much time do you spend on social media, the internet, etc. And are you aware of your accountability and the potential risks of the internet?”, One interviewee answered, “I tend to be on social media for roughly 3-4 hours per day. I have received graphic direct messages on social media, which has made me more aware of the risks to be encountered on the internet.” Another interviewee answered, “I spend a fair amount of time on social media and the internet. I am aware of the risks that come with showing myself so publicly and sharing so much information about myself on a public platform which is why I avoid posting things that are too revealing and have private accounts.” Teens are more accountable than children for their online activity and recognize the cruciality of protecting their privacy online. Children think that the only way to effectively protect themselves from sexual abuse online is to abstain from all internet use entirely, preventing them from utilizing the tools crucial to their intellectual growth in the future. Children must learn that other effective measures not as drastic as total abstinence can also be taken to insure security from pedophiles online, such as smart clicking or selective downloading.

            In 2019, children and teenagers have played significant roles in combating world issues surrounding the abortion laws, climate change, gun violence, and the sexual harassment of women in the #metoo movement. However, the global issue of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is not acknowledged to the degree of the others. When asked why this was the case through the question, “Why do you think child sexual abuse and exploitation is ‘swept under the rug’ when talking about pressing global issues?”, One interviewee answered, “Because the media and our society views issues like poverty & starvation as well as political issues as more important than things involving children.” Another interviewee answered, “I think this is because when discussing pressing global issues, new issues are prioritized as opposed to child sexual abuse which has always been a problem in our society.” Another interviewee answered, “I think people see it as something they want to hide because they are not sure how to fix it. I think some people believe that it is not an issue until you address it and they have been raised in environments where these cruel actions were ok and don’t see the problem. With that being said, I do believe that others actually don’t think their actions are an issue and still think this is all ok.” One interesting point was brought up here, the idea that people feel as though Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is not a pressing issue on the global agenda. However, when asked, “Why is child sexual abuse and exploitation significant?”, the interviewees all answered that it was the most significant form of abuse, for it originates from childhood and is severely detrimental in every facet of adulthood. The future generation believes that this issue is important, yet they are unaware of the specifics of the topic or the legislature surrounding it. When asked what the role of the United Nations was in combating this issue, an interviewee answered promptly, “I am unsure.”, highlighting how clueless and uniformed children are about a topic that affects them so significantly. When asked to name 3 specific types of child sexual abuse and exploitation, One interviewee answered, “I have no idea so I’m just going to guess….maybe.” One correct response to this question could be: cyber abuse, sex trafficking, and child sexual harassment. With knowledge, children will be more aware when an incident of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation occurs, and be more cautious when in a risky situation.

            So why do children believe this issue is exceptionally significant and yet, this matter does not get nearly the same media coverage and political attention as other issues? One answer to this question can be attributed to the lack of youth participation in this matter, as compared to other issues such as climate change or gun violence. When asked the question, “What do you feel you can do as a child to help combat worldwide child sexual abuse and exploitation?”, the interviewees felt stuck and unable to think of what they themselves could do to help combat this matter. One interviewee answered, “I’m unsure but I would love to raise awareness about it on social media as well as donate to any existing organizations.”Another interviewee answered, “ I think getting involved in organizations is helpful and just trying to raise money for these organizations or help out where I can. I am not sure what else I could do to help but I think [Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation] is something all children should pay more attention to.” The interviewee states that donating to a charity is a beneficial way to help however, they themselves are not able to personally wire money to foundations and organizations as children, and the majority of adults are involved in other causes that the world more deeply focuses on. The interviewee also acknowledges that she desires to help combat the issue, but feels unable to.

            One issue at the frontier of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, is that it is seldom addressed by the children it affects. With their voices, this issue becomes more widespread and impactful. Through the World Childhood Foundation, the solutions to this issue are in reach, but the future generation’s voice is crucial to putting child sexual abuse and exploitation on the global agenda and combating the issue effectively. Children should understand that they are able to help significantly by getting their schools involved, leading fundraisers, but most importantly using their voice for change. This could be through participating in protests against Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, contacting their representatives, educating their peers, starting a club at their school, or simply voicing their opinion in a discussion.

            After writing this article, I can conclude that the voice of the future generation is imperative to combating the global problem of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation. As a girl, I fear for my safety regarding this issue, and duly fear for the safety of all children alike. It is of paramount importance to me that myself and all children feel secure and protected from predators online and in the world. I worry that Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is “swept under the rug” and ignored on the global agenda. This is an issue that deserves and is necessary to be prioritized in every country on our globe. The stigma around Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation leads it to be forgotten. The strength of the future generation’s voice is key in guaranteeing that this issue is not forgotten. Through this experiment, I have learned three distinct things. The first: the future generation is uncertain and unknowledgeable about this issue, and all legislature and definitions surrounding it. The second: the future generation is terrified of this issue and therefore is timid when discussing it. Finally the third: the future generation cares. The future generation believes in the significance of safety and acknowledges that this issue is widespread and imperative to solve. The future generation desires to make strides towards solving this issue, and wishes to improve and expand on doing so. My hope for the future generation, including myself, is that we seldom allow fear to dictate how we combat issues we care passionately about, and that we always strive to create the ideal world we desire to live in, a world of safety and freedom, free from Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

            Use your voice or encourage your child to do so by visiting https://www.childhood-usa.org today.

Index:

*Note: not every question was used in this article, but the themes drawn from each were utilized.

1.      What does child sexual abuse and exploitation mean?

2.      How much time do you spend on social media, internet, etc. And are you aware of your accountability and the potential risks of the internet?

3.      Can you name 3 specific types of child sexual abuse or exploitation?

4.      Why is child sexual abuse and exploitation significant?

5.      What needs to change in order for the issue of child sexual abuse to be solved?

6.      Do you know what the United Nations’s role is in combating the global issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation?

7.      Would you consider our generation to be more aware, less aware, or not aware of the detriments and magnitude of child sexual abuse?

8.      Why do you think child sexual abuse and exploitation is “swept under the rug” when talking about pressing global issues?

9.      What can parents and educators do to encourage their children to be aware of child sexual abuse and exploitation?

10.  How can the government and legal systems be changed or amended to be more beneficial in combating child sexual abuse and exploitation?

11.  What do you feel you can do as a child to help combat worldwide child sexual abuse and exploitation?