How #MeToo is leaving child victims behind

#MeToo has opened the floodgates of sexual abuse for adults. Now, it must help children.

A child alone on a bench.
(Image credit: Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo)

For years as a child, I was abused by an adult. I kept this secret for decades.

I'm sure I knew other victims. But I heard none of their stories. Like me, they chose silence.

We survivors of child sexual abuse don't just know how to keep a secret — we were groomed to believe secrecy was essential to our survival.

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#MeToo has changed that, as more and more survivors of sexual violence and sexual harassment are coming forward to share their stories. But while some of these stories have included child victims, for the most part, the focus of #MeToo has been on adult victims of workplace sexual misconduct. The subsidiary #MeTooK12 movement emerged recently as a way to address sexual misconduct that occurs in schools, but even still, the scores of young girls and boys who experience child sexual abuse are largely cut out of the conversation.

This has to change. Roughly 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience sexual abuse. It is a sad fact that children are the most vulnerable among us and also the least equipped to advocate for themselves.

Children are victimized at higher rates than adults, per Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization focused on educating adults to prevent child sexual abuse. Their youth renders them "uniquely vulnerable," Heidi Fuchs, a criminal justice clinician at TESSA, a domestic violence support center in Colorado, told The Week, as they may not be able to properly understand and process the abuse they've endured. Children are "most in need of effective advocacy," Fuchs said, because "they lack the information, resources, experience, and ability to advocate for themselves."

Moreover, unlike adults, children are often completely powerless in their environments. Abusers are frequently the people who also meet a kid's most basic needs, like food and shelter. Even when abuse takes place outside of the home, it is often perpetrated by a trusted individual, and often in the context of activities that are presented as mandatory — like USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's rampant abuse of young female athletes during medical treatments.

When children are trapped in these abusive situations, the consequences can be devastating. In fact, child sexual abuse can cause literal changes to the structure of the brain, researchers discovered in a 2015 study.

That's why it is time for the women and men of #MeToo to advocate for children as ardently as they do for adults. Removing stigma is key, and encouraging survivors to disclose their own experiences will help others feel safe enough to come forward. We must disrupt the silence, because silence benefits only perpetrators, never victims.

Next, we must believe and support young victims. Just like adults, when children are supported in the aftermath of sexual violence, they not only experience higher rates of recovery, but they are less likely to minimize or ignore future incidents of assault. The more victims who receive safe, nurturing support after trauma, the more individuals there will be who can recognize abuse when it occurs — on and on, making communities safer overall.

But as much as individuals can make an impact, we must also strive to change the entire system that endangers children. It starts with supporting legislation that protects children from sexual abuse. Until the recent passage of the Safe Sport Act — which "makes members of amateur sports organizations (including Olympic sports) mandatory reporters of sexual abuse," per ThinkProgress — it was not a federal crime for representatives of youth sports organizations to ignore reports of child sexual abuse. Because of this glaring loophole, for decades the United States Olympic Committee, national governing bodies for youth sports, and individual teams have enabled predators at the expense of victims.

It is imperative we identify and remedy similarly dangerous gaps in the state and federal code. Earlier this month, a troubling Kansas City Star report revealed that 300 15-year-old girls married men older than 21 between 1999 and 2015. Yet attempts to change child marriage laws are often met with resistance. For example, last year New Hampshire failed to pass legislation that would raise their state's minimum age, which is currently 13 for girls and 14 for boys. Recently, lawmakers in Kentucky stalled a bill that would have changed permissive child marriage laws — until sustained outrage on social media prompted them to reverse their decision and move the bill forward. Our activism makes a difference.

We can also promote and support legislation that expands health education in middle schools and high schools to include information about consent, personal boundaries, and sexual violence. While much of this legislation is aimed at the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment, it can also benefit victims of child sexual abuse who are groomed to think they are in a special relationship with an adult to have a more informed view of healthy relationships and power dynamics.

The #MeToo movement is in a position to empower victims of child sexual abuse. The more people who feel comfortable sharing their stories, the wider the door opens for victims of all demographics to speak out. All children should enter adulthood knowing that silence is not a requirement — and if they do, they'll be perfectly poised to continue #MeToo's legacy.

Editor's note: This article originally mischaracterized the timeline of a bill. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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