Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Abuse
While Annabelle and I were traveling, we found ourselves in the company of groups of people far more often than usual, and it occurred to me just how many adults feel that it’s perfectly appropriate to touch a child without warning or invitation. Sure, it’s just a pat on the head or the back, a friendly touch on the arm or the leg, or perhaps a little squeeze on the cheek. It’s meant to be an acknowledgement of how adorable the child is, perhaps a way to connect and appreciate their sweetness. I get that, but I urge you, if you engage in this sort of touch, to think more deeply about whether it’s appropriate or respectful of the child.
One thing that really struck and upset me in our recent encounters was how many adults used touch when they had already made other attempts to engage Annabelle and she had chosen not to respond. They may have approached her, smiled at her, asked her a question, and gotten nothing in return. I make a point of acknowledging and speaking to people, even strangers, who come near as a way of modeling polite behavior and conversation, but I try to honor Annabelle’s feelings in these situations as well. Sometimes she is feeling shy or uncomfortable, and I think that’s okay. I don’t urge her to respond, because she shouldn’t have to. I may ask her in front of a new person if she’s feeling shy, knowing she won’t likely respond to me either, as a way of highlighting the importance and validity of her feelings and pointing out that it’s shyness, not rudeness, that is preventing her from speaking or connecting. To connect or not is her choice, and I don’t feel that social conventions should obligate her to do things she’s uncomfortable with.
So many times a situation went something like this: a person on the street stopped to say hello, looking Annabelle in the eye and perhaps asking her a question. She would tense up and look at me. I would respond to the person in a way that was logical based on their question and look at Annabelle. If she was still looking away from them, I would smile and say, “Are you feeling a bit shy?” Typically she remained tense, and I made an attempt at a graceful exit from the situation on this note. I was shocked when many of these people, after seeing that Annabelle had no interest whatsoever in engaging with them and was, in fact, uncomfortable, decided to reach in and force a connection by touching her in some way. Maybe this was intended as a reassurance of some kind. “It’s alright that you don’t want to talk to me, you’re still darling, have a pat on the head!” I’m sure that the intentions of each of these people were pure, but the message this sort of behavior sends to children is, I believe, a very dangerous one.
I know I’m not alone in that one of my greatest fears as a parent has to do with the possibility of one of my children being sexually abused. Something that I find extremely disconcerting is not only how disgustingly common this kind of abuse is, but how often it goes unreported. Figures on abuse reporting differ widely from one source to another, but I found this statement in an article from The Leadership Council titled “Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse,” particularly sobering.
Estimates suggest that only 3% of all cases of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Timnick, 1985) and only 12% of rapes involving children are ever reported to police (Hanson et al., 1999). A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 women revealed that of those raped during childhood, 47% did not disclose to anyone for over 5 years post-rape. In fact, 28% of the victims reported that they had never told anyone about their childhood rape prior to the research interview. Moreover, the women who never told often suffered the most serious abuse. For instance, younger age at the time of rape, a family relationship with the perpetrator, and experiencing a series of rapes were all associated with delayed disclosure (Smith et al., 2000).
The most commonly cited reason for this lack of reporting is the blame and shame perpetrators so often manage to place on their victims, but I know far too many victims of childhood sexual abuse who simply didn’t understand that what was being done to them was inappropriate. They were convinced it was a “game,” or a special secret that only they and their abuser shared. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, in their Child Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet, explains that,
Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.
My concern is that when we as adults take the liberty of touching children without their consent, albeit in completely innocuous ways, we’re demonstrating for them that adults have a right to their body. If children are used to being touched by adults in the supermarket, restaurants, on the street, and also at home with their families, how can we expect them to develop a sense of their own physical boundaries? How can we expect them, especially at a very young age, to understand the difference between well intentioned touch and abuse?
I believe very strongly that children have a right to make decisions about their own bodies. They have a right to decide when and how they want to be touched. While their innocence and sweetness may make us want to scoop them up and cuddle them, if we want them to have a strong sense of control over issues relating to their own bodies, we must learn to step back and intentionally involve them in the decision of whether, and how such an action should play out. My role as a mother does not entitle me to hugs, kisses, snuggles, or anything of the sort. Sometimes Annabelle wants to kiss me, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she gives the best squeezes a mom could hope for and other times my requests for a hug are met with an unwavering, “no.” It’s my job to respect her response no matter what, and to step in when others forget to consider her rights and boundaries, even if it comes off as offensive, or makes me appear rude.
This is something I’m still working on, and it’s so difficult to get over my own personal hangups about offending others, especially when I can see that these people are well-intentioned. I have been guilty of cringing inwardly while smiling outwardly, but the more I reflect on this issue, the more I’m committed to upholding and protecting my daughter’s rights no matter what. Her boundaries are important to me, and the last thing I want is for her to develop the idea that she should ever feel obligated to allow others to cross them.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t shower our children with warmth and affection, and of course we as parents must touch our children in some way or another nearly every day, especially when they are young. I do believe we can have warm, loving relationships with them while still showing a deep consideration and respect for their bodily autonomy. Here are a few ways we can do this:
1. Be responsive
It may not always be practical to verbalize and specifically ask permission for every touch. This may even feel unnatural and burdensome in a relationship so close as that between parent and child, but it’s important to watch our children and stop short as soon as it becomes apparent that any type of touch may be unwanted. In these cases, we can reinforce the value that their comfort and feelings have by apologizing. I catch myself on this one often and have to say things like, “I’m sorry, I thought you wanted me to pick you up. I’ll remember to ask first next time.”
2. Ask permission
Yes, sometimes it is appropriate for parents to ask their children for permission. When it comes to issues surrounding their body, they’re in charge. Whether verbally or nonverbally, we can show children that how they feel about being touched is important by asking before planting a kiss or giving a hug. Sometimes stretching your arms out and giving them the chance to lean in first before offering a hug is enough, and other times it may make sense to ask directly, “May I have a kiss?”
3. Give warning
As parents, there are times when we need to touch our children, and quickly. For instance, Annabelle came up with a little game recently that she thought was awfully fun, and it involved running away from me in the train station. With the tracks mere inches away, I wasn’t going to waste time in asking for permission to pick her up, and I certainly wasn’t going to leave her to keep running, even if I saw that she wasn’t wanting to be picked up (most of the time she wasn’t). I talked with her directly and let her know that when I see her running away, I feel really scared because it’s my job to keep her safe and running near the tracks is very dangerous. I told her that if I saw her running away, I was going to pick her up, because I need to know that she is safe. In this case, it only makes sense for me to touch her, for her own safety, but she still deserves to know why I’m doing so. This way she’s not caught off guard, and she also has the opportunity to avoid being picked up by not running away.
While some may think it’s a bit too much, this is my preferred way of interacting with younger infants. Of course they are unable to directly give permission, but I still believe they deserve to be consulted in actions surrounding their bodies. When picking them up, we can let them know what we’re doing and where we’re going. “I’m going to pick you up and take you to the couch so that I can offer you some milk.” When diapering or dressing them, we can talk through what’s happening and why, “I’m going to take your diaper off so that I can give you a fresh, clean one.” How much this benefits them, I can’t say for sure, but I believe it’s a wonderful way of showing respect for the child’s right to know what’s happening with their body, and if nothing else helps develop an awareness on the caregivers’ part that will make it easier to respect the child’s bodily autonomy as they get older.
It’s not possible to prevent every instance where an adult might touch a child in a way that is disrespectful. I know many strangers have reached in to touch Annabelle before I had the opportunity to do anything about it. We can only control so much, but what gets past us can be discussed later on. “I noticed that man squeezed your cheeks without asking.” These instances can be used as opportunities to help our children reflect on their feelings and see them as important. They’re also great opportunities for us to reinforce the idea that the child has the right to speak up anytime they feel uncomfortable.
Of course we can also work to prevent abuse, or increase the likelihood that our children will speak up about it by discussing what areas of the body are only for them to touch. We can use accurate terminology for body parts to make it easier for them to recount details if something does ever happen to them. We can be extremely careful about who we leave them alone with. There are a number of ways to heighten their awareness and engage in abuse prevention, but the first line of defense is a child who knows their boundaries and expects to have them respected. We can show our children that their bodies belong to them alone, and that their feelings are important well before conversations about good and bad touch are in order.