Most of us would like to think we'd intervene immediately if we saw a child being abused. Unfortunately, psychologists report that what we think and what we'd actually do are very different things.
Most of us, they say, would act like the otherwise well-meaning adults who witnessed Jerry Sandusky's abusive acts at Penn State, or those in the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, our own families. We'd deny what was happening or freeze up, unsure what to do. The tough fact is that most of us would do nothing.
So it's hard to blame the Ashland football team members who saw but did not stop or instantly report the recent abuse of their teammates. They acted as we would have done.
The crucial question is how can we — as guardians, parents, mentors and protectors — change this reality? How can we change our own behavior so that our children can be strong enough and feel safe enough to change theirs? The stakes here are immense: One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18, and countless numbers will experience severe bullying while in middle and high school. Our own child may escape this fate; our friends' or neighbors' children may not.
Changing the culture that makes abuse and bullying possible is a long, slow, difficult process. Here are some places to start:
1. Seek out the facts. It's extremely important to identify what cultural myths we've all internalized about sexual assault and abuse. Predators count on our misconceptions — and they use them. "No one will believe you," they tell their victims, an assertion too often proved true. A fact that is especially important to know as we teach our children how to stay safe: Some 80 percent of sexual assault victims are attacked not by strangers, but by people they know and often trust.
2. Having examined our own misperceptions, we must talk to our children about sexual abuse — about being an aggressor or a victim — openly, early and often. Children as young as 4 can understand the basic ideas involved. Don't let their initial discomfort — or yours — prevent you from having the conversations and, if they don't want to talk back to you, do as a wise colleague counsels — talk into the silence. I promise you they are listening. Be careful that you are not unwittingly sending messages that contribute to their victimization by invalidating their fear and silencing their attempts to stop something that distresses them: "Oh, lighten up, it was only a joke," "It's just boys being boys," "It's no big deal, nothing really happened "…"
3. Model behavior you hope to see in your children. Speak up when someone says "That's so retarded" or calls a woman a bitch or even force-tickles another. You can talk about how embarrassing and scary intervention can be; you can role-play to help them practice what they (and you) would do in similar situations.
4. Know that a fear of how parents might react is why so many young victims refuse to get help. "What were you doing at that party in the first place?" "I told you not to drink!" We hear these responses from countless loving adults, who in their shock react with the same mix of fear, confusion and shame that most of us share about sex crimes. So as awkward (and scary) as it may seem, practice your potential response. Know how to recover the situation if your first reaction comes out wrong. And when you hear yourself telling your child "if I ever catch you (fill in the blank here) "…," stop and take a moment to let them know that nothing is more important than them getting help for themselves or a friend. Let them know that punishment will not be the outcome of a disclosure.
Together, the Jackson County SART, Community Works and the Ashland Police Department have been developing a violence prevention program in Rogue Valley schools to help kids respond to incidents of sexual abuse and bullying; they also offer classes for parents who want help addressing these issues with their kids. But no one single class can change our world on its own. Prevention involves making far-reaching cultural changes, and we need an entire community to come together to help. And, for our children's sake, we need that help to start now.
Susan Moen is the executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team (JC SART).