Just when you think you finally know the way to talk about sexual abuse prevention, the rules change. Take a look at prevention curriculums, where we teach about "Ok Touch" and "Not OK Touch" and the caveat we put in that "even though you don't like how it feels, it's ok for a doctor to touch your private parts because he or she is there to keep you healthy." Oh, and that part about, "and your mother or father is in the room so that makes it OK too?" That’s part of the standard conversation we have in the prevention world when addressing sexual abuse. Then along comes Dr. Larry Nassar, who is a doctor, who abused under the guise of medical care, and who did it in full, but covered, view of many mothers. And let us not forget those girls who did exactly what we teach them to do. They told people that something made them feel uncomfortable, that they don't feel ok with this person's touch, and their asking for help was ignored and even flipped and used against them.
Those of us in the world of prevention are now taking pause. The conversations we have trusted to create a safety net for our children doesn't hold up in review of this most egregious case. As a prevention specialist, who teaches the community and our children about how to keep their bodies safe, my head has been spinning since hearing the details of the abuse. The knowledge of the crimes and the details of the insidious assaults are making me review and redo the wording of the curriculum. Does something need to change? Are we getting it wrong on some level and do we need to take heed and change it? Did we miss something?
Or is this just one of those outliers, one of those cases that deeply saddens those of us working tirelessly to keep kids safe, because we can't account for all kinds of crazy. Because a perpetrator can be so clever as to build the trust of hundreds and hundreds of parents. He can be so creative in his scheming as to convince the USA Gymnastic committee of not only his innocence, but of his willingness to protect the girls. And an entire University organization, entrusted with the care of children and students, can completely miss this.
We teach our kids to "tell a trusted adult," reinforcing for them the idea that adults are in charge and will help to keep them safe. In light of Nassar's crimes and conviction, there is opportunity for parents to reinforce the message of telling an adult when something makes the child feel uncomfortable, or if someone touches the child's private parts. When visiting a pediatrician's office, help the physician ask permission of the child, helping the child understand that they have control of their bodies. Model for them the conversation of consent.
And Parents, we need to reinforce the message that NO MATTER WHO IT IS, it's not ok and they can tell you what has happened. No matter who the offending adult is in their life, they have permission to tell you, their protector. A child needs to always be able to tell their grownup, to report and seek protection. To know that their parent will step in and that they can surrender this pain and this experience to someone bigger and stronger than they are, that by telling an adult, things are going to be OK.
But the Nassar case reinforces a major underpinning to this message. Parents, you need to believe your child. You need to hear them. REALLY hear them when they come to you in distress. When a child says they feel uncomfortable, or something gives them a "creepy feeling," you need to believe them and then you need to keep asking questions. Ultimately it is the job of a parent to keep a child safe.
When I walk into the next school, armed to reinforce the messages of personal safety and protection, it will not be Larry Nassar on my mind. It will be the messages of strength and resilience of Simone Biles and Ali Raisman, and the power returned to the 150 young women who chose to stand and face their abuser. And I will think of Rachael Denhollander, who chose to risk it all and go to press, openly and with courage, to try and finally end the abuse that had gone on for decades. When I speak to the children and parents, I will honor the role these courageous women took in finally speaking up and sharing their pain with the world. And I will take a moment of pause in respect for the journalists and judges and detectives and parents who finally listened.