I’m a mom with a master’s degree, three teenagers, and no police record. I never walked the streets or took money for sex. Yet, I’ve had my share of secrets, abuse, and even groomers. As a young, naive girl, I was abused by a church leader and family member.
Although I was not at fault, I still found myself feeling shame and the crushing weight of guilt. I thought I was alone, believing I had to keep these experiences to myself. I lost my voice and sense of self. Being a survivor of what so many other young people have experienced has ignited a passion in me for helping those who were similarly coerced as children.
I’ve realized that I am not alone in experiencing abuse and its aftereffects. One out of three girls and one of five boys have been sexually abused. And, after working with hundreds of female sex-trafficking victims, I have discovered that there is a common thread of childhood sexual abuse among those who are later exploited. Because of rampant abuse and the culture of secrets that so many of our kids endure, the unfortunate reality is that many of them will fall prey to predators.
There is also a common misconception that child sex-trafficking only happens in far-away countries, but the epidemic of childhood sexual exploitation is happening everywhere, even in our own backyards. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that one out of nine children in the U.S. will be sexually solicited online.
This is a real crisis and as our children’s protectors and champions, we have the most important role to play in prevention. As parents, we want to do everything we can to protect our children, whether that be from disease and physical harm or mental and emotional trauma. But in order to do so, we need to be aware of the dangers that exist in our children’s world – some of which we don’t even realize. It’s imperative that we begin educating our children on these threatening topics and become aware of the signs ourselves in order to lessen our children’s exposure to groomers.
The first thing we can do to get ahead of this crisis is to begin teaching our children about consent, starting from a very young age. They need to understand what it means to respect oneself and others, which can set the foundation for healthy boundaries and relationships. I’ve found that parents are often hesitant to address this topic because they fear discussing sexual intercourse. I’m talking about starting these conversations when our children are still so young that these two topics are not yet closely related.
We can model consent in a positive way for our children with something as simple as asking if you can try a bite of food off their dinner plate, or having siblings ask to borrow one another’s toys. Showing that you respect your child’s decision, as well as teaching them to respect others’, is essential in communicating what consent means.
Second, putting an end to the evil of childhood sexual exploitation boils down to education. Children must be given a framework of language and knowledge in order to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation.
They need to recognize grooming behaviors even if they don’t know the terminology. For example, a child might be approached and befriended by an adult his or her parents actually know or even a family member. Often, abusers tell their child victim to keep what they did a secret; they could also threaten them if they tell anyone. Teaching our children that a “safe adult” would never ask a child to keep a secret from their parents is a simple way to help them build trust and open communication. Help them understand the difference between an “unsafe secret” and a “surprise.” For example, a surprise party is something eventually Mommy and Daddy will find out about, and be happy when they do. An unsafe secret is something that someone tells us we are never supposed to tell our parents and makes us feel “icky,” scared, or in danger, etc.
Teaching children anatomical terms and stressing that no one is allowed to touch their “bathing suit zones” (the areas of the body that the bathing suit covers) is another way to reinforce body safety from an early age.
In addition, because of this age of unprecedented digital access, we need to set proper boundaries, or our children are at risk from the very devices we have provided them.
Some of the steps parents can take immediately to limit exposure include setting up parental controls on video games and Apple or Android devices. Disabling geotags is another important way to protect your child by keeping their location private, maximizing their safety. Having open conversations about “safe screens” and online risks is vital.
Prevention through preparation is the key to putting an end to abuse and ultimately, sex-trafficking and exploitation, as they are intrinsically linked. Most schools do not have programs established to teach students about this topic, and this is why it is critical for parents to begin these discussions at home. Facilitate ongoing conversations about these subjects and build honest and open relationships with your kids so they are empowered to speak up when they or a peer feel unsafe. Always reinforce the fact that you are a safe adult that they can come to about anything, and that they will never be in trouble if they tell you something that made them feel confused or unsafe.
Realizing the urgency of this global crisis, some schools are starting to implement training for faculty and staff so that educators can become equipped to talk to students. S.P.E.A.K. Up, created by The Foundation United, is a top-down model that informs faculty and staff about the risk factors students face in the hope of increasing their protection, and is being incorporated in schools across the United States. Federal legislation is also underway which will ensure that every school in America, K-12th grade, is empowered with prevention education. While this type of program will be instrumental in helping protect kids, parents still have a big responsibility and opportunity aside from what educators are doing. The Cool Aunt Series is also available through The Foundation United, providing parents and teens with engaging education and tools to prevent this crime from the comfort of their own home.
Parents must take the lead and stand in the gap for the next generation, taking the time and making the conscious effort to educate children on these matters, protecting their safety. There is beauty in children knowing they are loved, safe, and don’t have to keep any secrets from you, and when they are empowered to understand consent, the chances of them being groomed into childhood sexual abuse and trafficking decrease exponentially. Let’s fight for ourselves and our children. It may have started with a secret, but it ends today, with you.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Boonyachoat
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good is the co-founder and CEO of The Foundation United, a catalytic platform to end sexual exploitation and trafficking through systemic change. Fisher Good is a passionate pioneer and inspirational thought leader with a desire to expose the root issue behind sex trafficking — childhood sexual abuse. Her book “Groomed” (HarperCollins, 2020) recounts her own story of loss, abuse and triumph. Fisher Good dedicates her life to helping women from all backgrounds discover how to live free from past traumas, strongholds, and lies they may have been groomed to believe about themselves.