My op-ed was published in the Greenville News on Sunday, April 13. Here’s the piece…
In May 1973, I was finishing my first year as a school counselor in a large Upstate junior high when a 14-year-old honor roll student came into my office the last week of school and said, “I cannot go home! I can’t live in this all summer! You have to help me!” And she then began to pour out what would be one of the worst cases of sexual abuse that I would hear in my career. Her story has stayed with me and what I remember most vividly is one line she said about her father. “He nailed the windows shut so we couldn’t get out.”
For more than 40 years, I have listened to survivor stories, first as a school counselor and then as a forensic interviewer. Later, as a visiting instructor for Clemson University, I walked my graduate students through their first encounters of reporting and dealing with sexual abuse.
Now I listen to the experiences of adult survivors. I don’t find the stories. The stories find me.
According to adult retrospective studies by Silent Tears (silenttearssc.org), one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused before the age of 18. Many have never told their stories to anyone.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Ethically, morally and spiritually, every day should be Child Abuse Prevention Day, but during this spotlight month of April, I encourage you to take time to educate yourself on ways to prevent sexual abuse in your communities.
One way you could have become more aware was by visiting the Finding Voice exhibition at Furman University last week. Furman featured the project in the Trone Student Center as part of its SHARP (Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention) Awareness Week.
Finding Voice seeks to raise community awareness for sexual abuse prevention. The exhibit includes a series of canvases that feature a powerful photographic image paired with a story line entrusted to me for this project by individual survivors in the hope of opening eyes and raising consciousness.
Finding Voice gives survivors an opportunity to tell their stories without revealing their identities, a process that has been freeing for many of them. When one survivor saw her story on a panel she said, “I’m crying, but not from sorrow. I am crying for joy! My story has been released and I share it now with the Universe. I hope it will help others.”
Many believe that sexual abuse happens “somewhere” but not here. Not in my neighborhood and not to people I know. The reality is that sexual abuse happens everywhere, all the time. Sexual abuse crosses all economic, ethnic, religious and racial lines. The next time you are dining in a restaurant, attending a concert, sitting in a house of worship, participating in a public meeting, walking down the street, having dinner with friends or picking up your children from school, remember that one in four or one in six have a story.
The desire with every Finding Voice canvas is to have the viewer step into the survivor’s story and imagine what it would be like to have lived that experience. The hope is that having seen the exhibit, people will take action within their respective communities and find ways to answer the question, “What can I do right here, right now, to help prevent sexual abuse in my own backyard?”
Every time we put prevention in place — big or small — we can save a child from a trauma. Each prevention means a safer child, right here and right now.