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It seems like such a simple thing to say. How can it be that hearing just these three words, I believe you, can be positively life changing? And how can it be that not hearing these three little words can cause decades of shame, sorrow, and pain?
In 1997 Larissa Boyce dared to tell her gymnastics coaches of the sexual abuse she had repeatedly endured from the team doctor. Her coaches dismissed her claims as a “misunderstanding” and instructed her that reporting her claims could have “serious consequences” for the doctor.
As of last week, over 100 former gymnasts have come forward to echo the claims of Ms Boyce. There is a staggeringly steep price to pay for the convenience and comfort of denial. Most certainly there are more than the 100 brave women who have come forward in this case. We can only wonder how many girls would have been spared, how many girls would not be facing a lifetime of recovery, if those three incredibly important words had been spoken to Ms. Boyce all those years ago.
There is a very important reality here. Research has consistently shown that false allegations of sexual abuse by children are very rare. The incidence of false reports of sexual assault in adults is estimated to be between 2 and 8%. Keep in mind that these statistics are based on the cases that are reported. It is estimated that well over half (63%) of adult sexual assaults are not reported and less than 33% of the sexual abuse of children is reported. The evidence is in; there is every reason in the world to believe any child or adult who dares to report being sexually abused.
Why is it, then, that, as a culture, we find it so easy to remain in denial? Why is it so easy to ignore that, according to the National Crime Victim Survey, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted and every 8 minutes, that victim is a child – every 8 minutes! This is a hard and painful reality to digest. And I’ll admit that when I look around my granddaughter’s kindergarten classroom, I shudder at the knowledge that (according to current stats) 1 in 10 of those eager, curious, trusting children are likely to be sexually abused before they’re 18 years old. This is a reality that I want to turn away from.
Yet to turn away is to become complicit in perpetuating the culture of denial. I don’t know about you, but I am not content to live in a culture where these statistics remain the norm. I am not content to allow the sexual violation of any woman or man to be normalized or treated as a joke and god forbid we turn a blind eye to the critical need to accept the reality of the threat and protect our children from sexual abuse.
It is one thing to sanitize this issue by quoting numbers and statistics. It is another thing to look into the eyes of an adult, sexually abused as a child, who has NEVER heard those three healing and life changing words. It is heartbreaking that any man or woman needs to wait a lifetime to hear that there is no question about the absolute violation of their abuse, that suffering matters, and that healing is possible. It is unacceptable that any victim of rape or sexual assault needs to shrink back in shame for fear of not being believed. And it is beyond comprehension that a child’s courageous words telling of his or her abuse be denied or ignored.
The temptation to look away is strong, but the human cost of our cultural denial is simply too perilous to turn a blind eye. April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a time to shift our focus to what is already in plain sight.
By believing and supporting survivors, we acknowledge a difficult and uncomfortable truth and begin to change the conversation to the reality and prevalence of sexual assault. With dogged persistence and commitment, we become agents of cultural change. With just these three words – I believe you - we can instill hope and help survivors begin the process of healing.
As individuals and as a community we can and we must, without a moment of hesitation, believe and stand behind each and every survivor of sexual abuse and together we will change the culture to protect and support children and survivors.
~Janice Palm, MA, LMHC, Shepherd’s Counseling Services Executive Director
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