In the past, child sexual abuse prevention programs focused on teaching children and young people that their "private body parts" are those parts of the body that are covered by a bathing suit.
The very definition of the word "private" --- which means "away from public view; secluded" --- helped to perpetuate the myth that children and young people would be safe if they did not let anyone touch them in these areas. Some programs still offer resources, such as coloring books and teddy bears with bathing suits, which are meant to illustrate those parts of the body that need to be protected.
The enormity of this error was brought to my attention at a VIRTUS® Facilitator Training when one of the participants, who was a dentist, stated that he had joined the program because as a mandated reporter it bothered him that there has been an increase in the amount of suspected "oral sex" abuse reports that he has had to file. He wanted to help teach parents to watch out for their children's safety especially in the area of the mouth which is so often overlooked!
Child abuse perpetrators can use any part of the body to stimulate a child or young person or to arouse themselves.
That was an "aha" moment for me. Until then, I had not really focused on the importance of teaching children and young people "total body safety" to help them to protect themselves against child abuse perpetrators.
As I began studying different child abuse prevention programs, it became apparent that even when a program does not specifically promote the "bathing suit" myth, it is often not explicit enough in teaching the concept of "total body safety" which encompasses all parts of the body including the head, mouth, legs, arms, etc. Child abuse perpetrators can use any part of the body to stimulate a child or young person or to arouse themselves.
We also cannot discount the importance of teaching the concept of "total body safety" to young people. Research is being conducted each year by federal agencies and universities on the rise of oral sex among teens and the health risks involved. Many teens today consider this to be "safe sex."
As Catholic educators, we cannot ignore this alarming trend. It is our responsibility to help our young people to realize that their bodies are a gift from God and therefore, sacred and special. Teaching them to value and respect their own bodies helps them to value and respect others.
Here are some ideas for making this "paradigm shift":
---Be specific about teaching "total body safety" in all of your child abuse prevention programs. Even if the program you use does not perpetuate the "bathing suit myth" your participants may have learned that myth in the past.
---When teaching parents, stress that their child's entire body is private and encourage them to be watchful of adults who might be "grooming" a child by constantly tickling, kissing or hugging. A child will often tell a parent that they do not want to hug or kiss someone. Teach parents to listen to them and respect their wishes!
---Stress to teens the importance of "total body safety" in their relationships with others. Even if the other person is a girlfriend or boyfriend, they do not have the right to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
By teaching the concept of "total body safety" to adults, children and young people, we are furthering our efforts to stop child sexual abuse and to make the world a safer place for all of God's children.
Joan Vienna, MA, is Safe Environment Coordinator and director of the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month and "Keep Kids Safe" month in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. For more information on parish child safety activities, contact your parish office, or call the Safeguard the Children Office, (213) 637-7508.