My wife and I were at a dinner party last week. Since we are still relatively new in our community, we were asked to tell about ourselves. We talked about our involvement with Marriage Reconstruction Ministries and its mission of “helping men and women rebuild marriages affected by a wife’s childhood sexual abuse.” Our new friends around the dinner table leaned in as they listened and offered words of support that conveyed their compassionate awareness of the prevalence and harmful effects of childhood sexual abuse.
#MeToo was mentioned during that dinner table conversation. The recent trend has opened the door to many conversations and to some heightened awareness of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault. But I wonder if the present awareness and alarm will be sustained. What will come after #MeToo?
My question implies that the current headlines and tweets might not prevail over the long-term. Here’s my observation: people of any given society resist acknowledging the ills of that society over the long-term existence of that society.
I hear for example, as do you, people verbally grieving over the divisive nature of our society and the angry disrespect people display toward one another. But a couple days ago, I came across an article that exposed this disrespect in our society to be nothing new. The August 22, 1983 issue of U.S. News & World Report carried an article entitled “Why People are Rude – How it Harms Society.” Here’s an excerpt:
Have a nice day – but don’t expect any courtesy. That seems to be the attitude of many in this go-go society. Rudeness is becoming a common occurrence in American life. If you don’t like it, lump it. Or mind your own business. Or get out of my way. That is the kind of talk and attitude that is cropping up more often in almost every public experience – on the highways, in theater lines, over the telephone, on public transit. The examples are almost endless.
It’s now 35 years after that article was published, yet the rudeness and disrespect are as alive as ever. The warnings of the 1983 article were not enough to quench the ill of society.
I wonder, will the current #MeToo quench the ill of sexual abuse in our society? What will come after the current #MeToo? Will it bring lasting change? Thirty-five years from now, is our society going to be in need once again of a wake-up call, alerting us to the continued prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment?
Sadly, if the past is any indication of the future, there is reason to believe that the present #MeToo will become another forgotten call for awareness and change. The 2017 Tweet from Alyssa Milano that initiated the #MeToo surge was not the first time that the call for awareness was sounded. The first round of #MeToo was initiated by Tarana Burke in 2007 (Reported by the Huffington Post). Ten silent years transpired, and then the call for change had to be sounded again.
Whatever our society’s long-term response to #MeToo might be, you and I can heed the call for compassion and change. Let’s do it! Here are three actions we can take to sustain awareness of the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse and be initiators of long-term change.
- Initiate conversation
It’s not too late to take the initiative in asking your peers about their impressions of #MeToo. Get the conversation going in your car pool, local café, civic gathering, and anywhere else that you socialize. I’m not suggesting that you ask the question of strangers. Just initiate the conversation among friends.
Be ready for a variety of answers and strange looks. Remember, some people – maybe most – don’t want to talk about sexual abuse in our society, especially childhood sexual abuse. There is deep-seated shame attached to the subject. No one wants to admit that our cultured, sophisticated, educated, and moralized society does such things. If your question is met by a moment of awkwardness, it simply demonstrated the need for the question.
Some people’s response might be filled with suspicion and blame towards the victim of abuse. You can kindly and compassionately point to truth in that moment. Kindly inform your friend that disclosures of sexual abuse – especially childhood sexual abuse – are typically delayed; delayed for many reasons. Your role to inform can lead to some reform of their perspective.
- Respond with compassion
Think about what you will do if – when – someone says “Me too” to you. If it happens to be their first disclosure, your response will be the greatest variable towards their future well-being. I’m not overstating that information. Research indicates that the most influential variable in a person’s future well-being as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is the type of response they received when they made their first disclosure. A survivor will shut down for decades if they hear a response like, “[Perpetrator’s name] would never do that” or “You must have done something to cause that to happen.”
When someone discloses their experience of abuse, whether or not it is the first disclosure, we express compassion when we allow everything to stop and gently validate them with, “I am so sorry. No invasion like that should ever occur. If you want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”
If you are at lunch, put down your eating utensils or sandwich, make eye contact, talk softly, and let nothing interfere. If you are driving and there is a safe place to pull over, do so and look at them even though they may not be able to look at you. If they speak, listen. Don’t offer your opinions. Just validate with, “What you are telling me should have never happened to you. I am so sorry.”
- Support protective policies
If you are part of a church or school, become familiar with the policies in place that are aimed to protect children. Become educated in what can be done to ensure that children in your context are being protected from perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. Ask those in leadership how you can help to ensure protection.
I applaud the Catholic Church for taking steps to learn from past mistakes and protect their current children. They have initiated VIRTUS, a national training program to build and ensure safe-environment within their schools. It is offered to those within the Catholic Church. If you are not of the Catholic faith, talk to the local diocese for your area and see if there is a way you can participate in their 3-hour training. I was able to go through the training and it is excellent.
If your church does not have a policy for protecting children, then make an inquiry with your church’s insurance company. Some insurance companies can offer guidance for writing an effective policy. Help your church establish a policy for a safe-environment.
You are probably gathering your receipts and filling out your tax forms for the IRS during these weeks. So I’ve made it easy for you with my three steps that form an acronym: Initiate conversation, Respond with compassion, and Support protective policies.
Let’s do it!