Sexual Abuse in the Presence of Others: COVID-19 Version

I originally wrote this post around the holidays in 2016; however, I believe it is an important one to reshare as we face the coronavirus pandemic and many people are confined to their homes.

This was a difficult post to revisit, especially during this time when I know so many children are living their worst nightmare with no opportunity for escape. Of all my posts, I believe this is one of the most important for people to read because it describes the unimaginable- abuse happening right in front of us. Most of us feel immune to this type of experience- it can’t/won’t happen in my family. I’m sure my family would have said the same thing too. Yet, feeling that way did not protect me. We need to be willing to remove the blinders of security, step into the uneasy, and face the reality. Hopefully, this will never be your family’s story. Being proactive can reduce the chances of this becoming you and your child’s reality.

As many of us are spending much more time physically together with family or friends, it is important to acknowledge and understand how abuse happens despite being in the presence of other people. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that “approximately three-quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other individuals who are considered part of the victim’s ‘circle of trust.”

I know it is hard to imagine anyone in your family or extended circle of trust harming your child, but it has happened too many times to too many people and we can’t ignore this any longer.

I believe many people have the misconception that sexual abuse can only occur behind closed doors or when the abuser is alone with their victim. We sometimes have the thought “well no one will try to do anything with so many people around watching.” Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Abuse can happen in your presence and abusers are so powerful in their manipulation skills that no one will be wiser.

There were many times my abuser was brazen enough to abuse me in the presence of others. Some evenings when I was a child, my family would sit around and watch television together in the living room. It became expected of me to grab a quilt and sit in my abuser’s lap during what should have been a safe and innocent bonding time. He would use this time to touch me inappropriately with both his hands and his genitals.

He was bold enough to do this because he knew how much he had manipulated me. I was so fearful in those moments that I would sit and act as normal as possible, muscles tensed as I did my best not to flinch, while he abused me. During those moments, I never dared to push the quilt away, screaming to reveal what was happening to me under that family heirloom.

We had a swimming pool in our yard and would regularly swim as a family and sometimes with neighbors. There could be 5 other people in the pool, yet if my abuser was in there at the same time as me, I knew what would happen. As he tossed each child in the air to splash in the pool, I knew my turn would eventually arrive. I didn’t have the voice to say no. Just before I would fly through the air, I would be touched inappropriately. No one seemed to notice and I never alerted anyone to what was happening in the pool because I lived by the rules of my abuser.

One simple act- removing the blanket, screaming, or even leaving my bathing suit malfunctioned from my abuser’s touch, could have revealed to someone the abuse I was enduring. As an 8-11-year-old child, I didn’t have the fight in me to do anything more than simply survive, and that meant, abiding by my abuser’s rules. All of my energy was devoted to maintaining the façade that everything was perfect in my life and meeting all of my abuser’s requests.

An adult has to step up and fight for us. You can be the person to do just that.

If you have children, I hope you will take the time to talk about body rights and healthy, safe touch. Empower them. Monitor their interactions with other adults, teens, and children, even if it is someone you trust. If your child appears fearful or nervous around certain people, do not brush it off as shyness- ask questions. If your child does not want to be alone with someone- ask questions. Help the child understand how to voice situations that are uncomfortable. Be willing to check what is happening under the blankets. Give them the choice of whether or not to hug a family member. Maybe a handshake or high five is more comfortable for your child. Fight through the discomfort this type of conversation may bring and have these necessary conversations now.

My intention is not to make you paranoid about every person your child comes into contact with, but to make you aware that abuse does happen in the presence of other people. It is not always isolated an incident. Abusers will not stop abusing simply because we are under a stay-at-home order; unfortunately, this gives them more opportunities to abuse. We have to be vigilant in protecting the children in our lives.

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The Return of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”

I was met with a rush of emotions as I watched a preview for a newer version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (WWTBAM). I have not kept up with the show since the first few seasons with Regis Philbin as host. I figured it had found its place on Game Show Network. I nostalgically reflected on the same excitement I felt as an eight-year-old eagerly awaiting the show’s premiere. I still love a good trivia game show. A little over two decades from the original air date, the current preview still brought sadness, anger, and confusion.

At eight years old, my excitement met my worst nightmare as my abuser destroyed my enjoyment of the original WWTBAM. The episodes of WWTBAM morphed into regularly scheduled abuse sessions at the hands of my abuser. My abuse revolved largely, but not solely, around this gameshow that so many grew to love. Despite how much I hated this show on the inside, if you had asked me when I was eight or nine years old, what is your favorite television show; I would have readily answered with certainty, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I had no choice but to adhere to the façade my abuser created. So, I felt sadness, when the new preview aired, for the little Kendall that simply wanted to watch a new tv show with anyone who would watch it with her, competing to see if we too could “win” a million dollars.    

Next, came a pang of anger because, for this new season of WWTBAM, my abuser is no longer a registered sex offender. I immediately began thinking- what if there is another little girl who wants to watch this show with him. Will he abuse her too? My anger at the justice system was reignited as I questioned- why was his punishment not greater? Why did they let him off the registry? Who is going to protect the next little girl? In my prefrontal cortex, the logical part of my brain, I have somewhat satisfactory answers to those questions that help me maintain a level of peace with the past. However, in this moment, my limbic system, the emotional part of my brain, was triggered and these are the questions it generates in that state. If you think about the fight, flight, or freeze response, I was definitely experiencing a desire to fight.

The most troubling emotional response I experienced was confusion. I questioned how I could feel excitement now for a show that has been associated with so much pain in my life. Am I allowed to watch this newer version and maybe even enjoy it? If I can watch it now, what does that say about my childhood abuse? If I refuse to watch the new show, does that give my abuser power over my present and future?

A child is completely powerless when he/she is abused. The child has no voice in those moments. The powerlessness is created through the threats abusers often use, reliance on the relationship for basic needs and survival, strength differentials, a desire for cohesiveness and stability in the family unit, and disbelief when we do tell another person. Part of the counseling process for trauma, particularly abuse, is recognizing our powerlessness as children and reclaiming that power, where we can, as adults.

Continuing this healing journey, I walked through these steps this week. Where I did not have the power to choose whether or not to watch WWTBAM when I was a child, I could choose now if I wanted to watch the show, where I wanted to watch it, how I wanted to watch it, who I wanted to watch it with, and when I wanted to watch it.

Not only did I allow myself to watch the show, I allowed myself to feel everything that emerged as I watched it. I am choosing to create new associations with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to replace those that immediately take me back to my abuser’s bed. The show did not abuse me. My abuser used the show as bait for his heinous acts.

Will I watch the next episode that airs this coming week? Maybe I will or maybe I will not. It is a decision I get to make.

That is the power of healing that God allows us to engage. He created our brains in a way that allows us to form new associations and connections. Those things that used to conjure nightmares can once again be enjoyed or at minimum, tolerated. Realistically, there are going to be many more times when the familiar sounds of the show take me back to a place of pain, but leaning into God’s truth and using the power I have to choose my thoughts, I do not have to remain in that painful place. And as time goes on, those familiar sounds may one day bring a joyful smile to my face as I think about new memories the show generates. Healing is real, ya’ll. Let your final answer be, keep on the journey.